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The Parent Trapped
By Peter Hanson

Panic Room
Directed by David Fincher

Although some of its creators ihave made noise about how Panic Room is a metaphor for the traps we build around ourselves, the best thing about this new thriller is that any great heft the story has, metaphorical or otherwise, doesn’t seem relevant until well after the movie is over. David Fincher’s meticulously crafted picture is an old-fashioned thrill ride that utilizes contemporary cinematic technology in subtle ways, so just as viewers aren’t hit over the collective head with any Big Ideas, they aren’t bombarded with Artistic Statements. The movie is designed to make people jump in their seats, and it does its job without any fuss.

Jodie Foster, who now appears in films so infrequently that every picture she makes is something of an event, stars as Meg Altman, a newly single New York City mom. At the beginning of the picture, she moves into a roomy brownstone that features a “panic room,” a fortified space loaded with survival gear, surveillance equipment and gadgets like phone lines separate from the brownstone’s other lines. It’s inevitable from the first frame that Meg and her teenage daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), will get a chance to see if the panic room lives up to its reputation as a “castle keep,” so the filmmakers get things rolling right away.

A trio of home invaders breaks into the brownstone at night, and Meg and Sarah barely evade the trio by slipping it into the panic room. Thus begins a battle of wills between the entrapped women and their male assailants, who, as has been revealed in every ad for this movie, want something that’s hidden in the panic room.

Fincher, whose last effort was the deliciously demented Fight Club, goes to town on this project. He reportedly spent a year shooting Panic Room because he took a Hitchcockian approach, designing intricate shots in which the camera zooms and climbs and careens through various spaces. But Fincher fills the movie with warmth by balancing bravura camerawork with hot-wired acting. The movie obviously is a showpiece for Foster, who gets to play various shadings of, well, panic, but everyone in the small cast contributes something essential. Sporting a notably ugly hairdo of white-boy cornrows, Jared Leto is a riot as a rich boy who gets in way over his head by leading the home invasion. Dwight Yoakam very nearly tops his Sling Blade performance for sheer repulsiveness as the deadliest of the crooks. And Forest Whitaker’s peculiarly vulnerable presence adds tremendous flavor to his performance as the odd man out among the criminals. Even newcomer Stewart, who could easily have blurred into the background because her character is mostly there as a motivation for Foster’s character, conjures a distinct individual and makes big moments feel fresh and credible.

It’s evident that Panic Room cost a load of cash, but for once the money wasn’t spent on explosions (OK, there’s one of those) or car chases or computer-generated monsters. Instead, the money was spent on ensuring that Fincher, his creative team and a magnificent group of actors had the time to do everything just right. As has become the norm in big-budget movies, however, the weak link is the script: Stalwart Hollywood scribe David Koepp created a well-oiled thrill machine, but he drops the ball a bit at the end, causing Panic Room to finish on an anticlimactic note. Still, getting to that point is so much fun that even a lukewarm denouement can’t take the shine off this heartily entertaining distraction.

Pitch Perfect

The Rookie
Directed by John Lee Hancock

In The Rookie, which is based on a true story, Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid) is a frustrated former baseball player staring into the abyss of middle age. He has a nice wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), and a couple of kids. He is a well-liked high school science teacher and baseball coach in a small, friendly Texas town. It’s the “former baseball player” past that he can’t let go of. His minor-league career was cut short by injury. Coaching a motley bunch of underachievers, in a high school where the football program is God, just isn’t cutting it.

It would be cynical to say that since this is a G-rated Disney picture, what will happen is preordained: First Jimmy will find strength and inspiration in the underachievers, then he will find something in himself, and make his own baseball comeback.

This would not only be cynical, it would be correct: That is precisely what happens. The result should be corny and saccharine, but instead, it’s affecting and genuinely heartwarming. Credit director John Lee Hancock for knowing, as they say in the beer spots, when to say when. The film has all the elements that would make a great parody: a child too cute for his own good, an ethnically diverse cast that could have been chosen by a focus group, and a one-horse town populated by a lovable cast of old coots straight out of a commercial for a fiber dietary supplement. But none of these familiar clichés is presented as cliché, and the effect is almost startling. The characters are allowed to breathe, and the audience is allowed to take this in.

Setting aside all the baseball stuff, the dramatic spine of the story is the parallel father-son relationships. Jimmy never had any support from his disciplined Navy dad (Brian Cox), who had a special kind of frustration, too, as a Navy recruiter posted to a dusty Texas town. There is a prologue of sorts, in which we meet Jimmy as a kid, and see his dad blowing off Jimmy’s Little League games; we are clearly meant to infer that the indifference and disapproval lasted as Jimmy grew up. The contacts between them remain strained and painful, and the scenes depicting their relationship are the strongest in the film. Enormous expectations and hurt are expressed in small gestures by Cox (the screen’s original Hannibal Lecter, in Manhunter) and Quaid. The relationship between Jimmy and his son is considerably lighter, as it is meant to show how the younger Morris means not to repeat the same mistakes as his dad.

That fact that it’s a true story, however, is what really makes the film compelling. A 38-year-old man who’d never thrown faster than 85 mph in his minor-league prime, and had been through more than one major surgery on his pitching arm, suddenly starts tossing 98 mph fastballs and pitches his way into the big leagues. (The intercession of Mephistopheles is usually required for this kind of dramatic development.) Quaid gives a great performance as Jimmy, his low-key style balancing the unbelievable nature of the facts. Granted, Morris pitched for the abysmal Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in a Major League Baseball bloated by expansion. But the majors are the majors, and a 98 mph fastball is a wondrous thing. The Rookie resists almost any complaint.

—Shawn Stone

Time to Sell

Clockstoppers
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Teen comedies now have a jun- ior division: the tween comedy. Tweens, as any marketing analyst can tell you, are slightly younger than preteens; up until a year or so ago, they were known as children. But that was before they became a highly desirable demographic, sought after for their skilled leverage over the wallets of parents (what used to be known as whining). The innocuous Clockstoppers may be the first tween comedy, and not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of stuff in it: flashy clothes, mountain bikes, paint guns and GM trucks.

Tweens may be a bit young for GM’s clientele base, but brand-name loyalty is easiest to develop in tender little spenders—like the ones who will most enjoy this energetic little sci-fi adventure, directed with verve by actor Jonathan Frakes. In it, handsome goofball Zak Gibbs (Jesse Bradford) is feeling neglected because his father, who is also his high school science teacher, is too involved with his work to cosign a car loan. Dr. Gibbs (Robin Thomas) is working out the bugs for a device invented by a former student (French Stewart) that produces “hypertime.” The gizmo is encased in a Swatch, shifting the wearer into a state of light-speed molecular being that makes everything else in motion appear to be standing still. Zak puts on the watch and accidentally sets it off.

He happens to be on a date at the time, with the school’s gorgeous new girl from Venezuela, Francesca (Paula Garces). Zipping around faster than hummingbird wings, the couple get to wreck adorable mayhem on the town before rogue government agents show up and kidnap Dr. Gibbs. For their second date, Zak and Francesca embark on a rescue mission, which includes an adventure in shopping: The couple hits a science expo with Francesca’s credit card. The special effects are kinda fun, and Zak is far more appealing than the average Hollywood teen: Bradford was critically lauded for his 1993 debut as the young hero in Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. And the glamorously vivacious Garces just may ween your tween off of Britney. Still, Clockstoppers has zero appeal for anyone outside of the 7-to-11 demo. This is target marketing at its most advanced, but for kids who grew up with 300-plus cable stations, perhaps only niche entertainment will do.

—Ann Morrow

I Hate You, You Hate Me

Death to Smoochy
Directed by Danny DeVito

“There’s a lot of kids and junkies out there who are depending on me,” Sheldon Mopes declares emphatically. Sheldon is a granola-crunching hippie with an acoustic guitar and a dream of making the world better, but he takes an unusual route toward social change: He’s a professional children’s entertainer who dresses in a pink rhino suit and calls himself Smoochy. The good news is that he has a choice time slot on a kiddie-TV network, but the bad news is that his new bosses couldn’t care less about Sheldon’s agenda of healing junkies and nurturing youths. Oh, and Sheldon’s got another problem: The guy who used to have his time slot wants Sheldon dead.

This darkly satirical plot is the juice behind Death to Smoochy, an incredibly uneven new comedy from director Danny DeVito. The movie fails on many levels, and its script is so erratic that characters abruptly change into completely different people whenever the story necessitates a tonal shift, but Death to Smoochy is loaded with edgy humor and laugh-out-loud moments. If you’re willing to overlook the movie’s massive problems, strap yourself in for a wickedly good time.

The picture’s greatest strength is costar Edward Norton, who plays Sheldon. One of the most reliable and versatile talents in Hollywood, Norton nails every aspect of his character, from the earnestness that fills Sheldon whenever he puts on his Smoochy suit to the repressed anger burning in the character’s offscreen persona. Given how inconsistent the other characters are—and given Norton’s reported history of tinkering with how his roles are written—chances are we have the actor to thank for the fact that Sheldon is the only person in this movie who makes sense from start to finish.

The movie’s nominal star, Robin Williams, plays kid-TV host Rainbow Randolph, who gets busted for taking bribes in exchange for featuring particular tots on his show. When his time slot is given to Sheldon, Randolph turns into a homicidal alcoholic. It’s fun to watch Williams go dark after seeing him in so many cuddly roles, but you can sense the touchy-feely guy trying to break out from the psycho, which undercuts the humor. It doesn’t help that some of the tricks Randolph pulls on Sheldon stretch credibility way past the breaking point.

Another big problem is the character played by Catherine Keener, a TV exec who initially regards Sheldon as a simp whom she can manipulate, but who gets turned from an antagonist to a love interest with only the flimsiest of justifications. Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein and, stepping in front of the camera, DeVito also are shortchanged by silly roles. Enduring character player Vincent Schiavelli at least gets a priceless exit line.

Death to Smoochy’s weaknesses may well outnumber its strengths, but its best moments are memorable, and they usually involve Norton. In one of his finest scenes, Norton captures the sickly sensitivity that pervades Smoochy’s style of children’s entertainment with a song that Norton cowrote with screenwriter Adam Resnick: With nary a trace of irony, the man in the rhino suit sings “My Stepdad’s Not Mean (He’s Just Adjusting).”

—P.H.


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