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Crush
"Entirely implausible"
Dir. John McKay; writ. John McKay; feat. Andie MacDowell, Imelda Staunton, Anna Chancellor, Kenny Doughty, Bill Paterson, Caroline Holdaway, Josh Cole, Gary Powell (R)
It's not fair to pick on John McKay, writer/director of the new chick flick Crush, just because he's a guy. After all, not only have men like George Cukor, Ingmar Bergman, and James L. Brooks proven they have the right stuff to craft what have been traditionally considered "women's pictures," but men are responsible for inventing the oft-dissed genre in the first place. Nonetheless, McKay's perspective on the nature of female friendship is so abysmal and off-base that you have to wonder who encouraged him to share his delusions with the world, and if that Y chromosome didn't put him at a disadvantage after all. In Crush, two fortysomething British twits (Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor) turn on Yankee gal pal Andie MacDowell, whose only affront is getting some from — and then getting serious with — a dishy 25-year-old (Kenny Doughty). Their jealous pettiness and spite lead to a climax so over-the-top that the film never recovers from it: The women's exaggerated, senseless cruelty to one another — and their equally ludicrous desire to make up immediately afterward (group hug!) — are entirely implausible. — Adele Marley

Murder by Numbers
"Less would have been more"
Dir. Barbet Schroeder; writ. Tony Gayton; feat. Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt, Agnes Bruckner (R)
The core story of Murder by Numbers will sound familiar to anyone who's seen Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, or knows the real-life story of Leopold and Loeb: Two young men with an unusually strong bond (homoerotic subtext is present in all reinventions of the tale) decide that they will prove their superiority over humankind by getting away with an arbitrary murder.

While Rope had Jimmy Stewart playing a reluctant gumshoe, Numbers stars Sandra Bullock's Cassie Mayweather, a hard-bitten cop whose office politics are lifted from the Dirty Harry files: Both her chief and a bitter D.A. are bent on throwing hurdles in the way of her investigation. She also has a green but talented partner, played by Ben Chaplin, with whom she develops a passive-aggressive romantic relationship.

When Mayweather seduces Chaplin's character, then kicks him out of bed, warning bells will ring: faux-deep psychobabble ahead! In an attempt to lend the lead character some emotional depth, screenwriter Tony Gayton has concocted a backstory for her involving an early exposure to domestic violence, the memory of which has made her incapable of intimacy.

It's this subplot that turns Murder from a perfectly serviceable thriller into an embarrassment; Gayton sketches the issue out using a few clich├ęd bits of dialogue that are planted just far enough apart to remind you how little you've been thinking about this side of the story.

Too bad the filmmakers couldn't excise it, because there's plenty of other material here. Our villains are an engaging pair: one semi-Goth kid with too much knowledge of forensic procedure for his own good (Justin, played by Michael Pitt), and his sickeningly smooth pal Richard (Ryan Gosling), who pretends to despise Justin at school to maintain his image. While Pitt lays the alienation on a bit thick, Gosling is a compelling presence, repellent but somehow charming. It's fun to guess who'll crack first, and which boy is really in control.

Those questions could keep viewers in their seats, but that same audience may be heading down the aisle halfway through the climax, which suffers badly from "it's all over ... no, wait, there's more! ... and more!" syndrome — and they may already be driving away from the theater as the film ties up the loose ends in Mayweather's past. They won't miss much. — John DeFore

The Sweetest Thing
"Just an excuse for a string of very funny shtick"
Dir. Roger Kumble; writ. Nancy M. Pimental; feat. Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, Thomas Jane, Selma Blair, Parker Posey, Jason Bateman, Damon Williams (R)
The Sweetest Thing, directed by Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions), is a romantic comedy where romance is just an excuse for a string of very funny shtick. It features the dazzling Cameron Diaz as Christina (whose credo is "Don't go looking for Mr. Right; look for Mr. Right Now") and Christina Applegate as her best friend, Courtney. Together, they misuse their powers of cuteness and likability, ravaging the nightclub scene and abusing boys.

Christina and Courtney dance with each other and snicker as male specimens execute their pathetic mating ritual — and all is fine, until Christina grabs the wrong ass. Peter (Thomas Jane), with his regular-guy good looks and upstanding attitude, isn't the club's typically vacant fare. In a few words, he manages to ruin her superficial fun-facade, challenging her way of life and state of mind.

Diaz and Applegate have an amazing rapport; You don't doubt for a second that they're best friends. All those years on Married with Children have obviously paid off, because Applegate's deadpan, dead-on delivery rides the film like a custom-made saddle that she straddles, comfortably droll and pretty.

Also involved is the downcast beauty of Selma Blair as Christina's roommate, Jane, drowning her relationship malfunction in ice cream and dumb, beautiful men. Jane is the butt of the raunchiest jokes, like the cum-covered-dress-dry cleaning-scene that's absurd, somewhat predictable, but still pretty damn funny. You can see how writing for South Park influenced Nancy M. Pimental's approach to a script that has absolutely no problem about going too far, all the way to the other end of the "ludicrous" rainbow.

Aside from a couple spots that forget to float, The Sweetest Thing is a lot of laughs, poking fun at both men and women, with a split-your-gut dream sequence (girls, you gotta see this one), and a lingering moral that's sweet but calorie-free. — Anita Schmaltz

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