THE OTHER WOMAN
Unduly high expectations, as we all know, can sometimes ruin your movie-going experience. Unduly low expectations, on the other hand, generally yield nothing but benefits, and so I'd like to thank film-critic consensus for making me so fearful of Nick Cassavetes' The Other Woman. This revenge comedy may be indefensibly weak, but the unbridled and unwarranted zeal with which so many people are attacking it - The Dispatch/Rock Island Argus used Richard Roeper's description "excruciatingly awful" as the review's headline - makes me feel that some defense might be necessary.
Alas, you'll be reading no defense of Cassavetes' labored and atonal direction, nor of debuting screenwriter Melissa Stack's badly rigged storyline, which finds a hotshot lawyer (Cameron Diaz), a wronged spouse (Leslie Mann), and a profoundly dim beach bunny (Kate Upton) getting even with the skeezy lothario (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who done them wrong. Presentationally, The Other Woman is an utter mess; Cassavetes lets the moronic comic gambits run on way past their points of exhaustion and the slapstick staging is depressingly amateurish, and many of the director's more obvious choices, in context, make no sense at all. (As might be expected, famed swimsuit model Upton makes her first appearance running in slow-motion in a bikini - but exactly whom is Cassavetes trying to turn on with this entrance? Straight guys? Gay gals? 'Cause while I hate to stereotype, I'm betting few of either demographic are gonna bother with this film.) And the means by which Stack's women plot and execute their retaliation - Laxatives in his wine! Estrogen in his smoothies! - are ridiculously forced and sitcom-y even for a genre that hardly depends on realism. By the time Costner-Waldau's heartless bastard is reduced to a shrieking, blood-soaked lunatic at the finale, you might find the sight of your impatiently tapping foot more entertaining than anything Cassavetes is putting on-screen.
Yet making crappy high-concept comedies is one of the things Hollywood does best (or at least with the most regularity). So I find it rather strange that The Other Woman's negative reviews seem so much more hostile than they were for, say, That Awkward Moment or Ride Along or Delivery Man, considering that Diaz, Mann, and Upton are clearly doing their damnedest to make this unworkable project work. Unlike her character, Diaz seems impervious to humiliation here; she creates a sensibly sardonic figure with a firm ethical stance, and even amidst the stupidity, Diaz's intelligence is never in doubt. Mann is given a horrific introduction in which her babbling housefrau is so neurotic and shrill that you think her hubby is right to cheat, but the performer's drunken hysteria is legitimately funny, and several of her seemingly improvised bits land with fizzy exuberance. (Mann becomes more and more likable as the movie progresses.) And while her role would appear to be little more than an extended visual gag, Upton is so blithely daffy - smiling bright-eyed at her own shallowness - that she's utterly irresistible, even scoring a deserved laugh during her brief bit in which she looks through binoculars the wrong way. This trio, and the nicely tart turn by Nicki Minaj as Diaz's assistant, aren't enough to make Cassavetes' comedy worth your time, but while it's only April, I've still seen more than 20 titles in 2014 I've enjoyed less than this one. "I'm glad she's super-hot," says Mann, to Diaz, after seeing Upton on the beach. "I think she brings up our group average." Agreed. And amazingly, though it isn't a high compliment, The Other Woman brings up the film year's group average, too.
THE QUIET ONES
Jared Harris stars as a dangerously obsessed scientist in the new fright flick The Quiet Ones, and it quickly becomes obvious that he's not to be trusted, because the man has a cigarette in hand or mouth during nearly every second of his screen time. Unfortunately, the rest of director John Pogue's outing proves similarly telegraphed and unsurprising, but there are at least a few entertaining jolts and images along the way. A demonic-possession thriller, set in 1974 England, that opens with the requisite "based on true events" hooey, the film finds Harris and his team of young research assistants trying to determine if a 20-something girl (Olivia Cooke) is manifesting physical disturbances from her troubled mind or if, in fact, she's the host body for a restlessly unhinged spirit. You get no points for correctly guessing which turns out to be the case, just as you get no points for predicting that everyone will wind up in a creaky rustic house, and that the soundtrack will be littered with meaningless, decibel-bursting, "BOOM!"s and "BANG!"s, and that some of the film's youths will sneak up on others and scare the bejeezus out them, you know, just for fun. (Why do characters in horror movies keep doing this? Don't they know that practical jokers never survive these things?) It's all pretty much what you'd expect, albeit with perhaps less actual bloodletting, and the period costumes - especially those of the wide-eyed cutie Erin Richards - offer some nostalgic kick. But there are also some wonderfully creepy compositions, with the awkward group pose for a photograph offering just the right touch of giggly terror (we wait and wait for the inevitable paranormal arrival that lands right after we've almost given up hope), and there's a refreshing paucity of CGI effects ... although the ones we do get are kind of hopelessly phony. And, happily, there's Jared Harris on hand to lend The Quiet Ones a welcome blend of emotional validity and rococo insanity. He may be the son of the late actor Richard Harris, but if you've seen that notorious 1977 fiasco Exorcist II: The Heretic, you'll realize Jared's performance here more closely resembles a somewhat subtler take on Richard Burton's. When it comes to campy horror tales, that's about the highest praise and lowest insult I can think of.
Upon reflection, director Camille Delamarre's Brick Mansions is more reminiscent of a James Bond movie than nearly any other recent action thriller I can think of - but that's only because its pre-title sequence, as with most Bond films, is the best thing about it. Before the film dives headfirst into its aggressively, amusingly loony premise involving a rocket that's going to blow Detroit off the face of the Earth, there's an extended chase scene in which French star David Belle - for reasons completely superfluous to the plot - escapes his adversaries by leaping down stairwells and over rooftops and, frequently and literally, running on walls. I later learned that this was the practice of the acrobatic martial art parkour, which Belle helped originate, and its spectacular employment here makes the first 10 minutes of Brick Mansions among the 10 most exhilarating movie minutes of the year. Compact and muscular, and pulling off his miraculous stunts with no-sweat brio, Belle is a thrilling sight to behold in this intro, and makes the rest of Delamarre's uninspired Escape from New York clone look even shabbier than it otherwise might've. (Sadly, Belle's co-star, the late Paul Walker, proves unable to pull off his Belle-lite feats without serious aid from his editor and slow-motion photography.) Here's hoping the charismatic, funny, and crazily gifted Belle lands future gigs in more action flicks that deserve him, and fewer in which hulking nemeses get knocked unconscious while bird whistles pepper the soundtrack, like Sylvester getting conked on the noggin by Tweety. There's really only so much cartoonishness this genre can stand.