Suspect Zero (Paramount, 2004) D: E. Elias Merhige, w/ Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley. Rating: NNN
Despite a mood slightly reminiscent of Seven and a story and characters that inescapably call to mind The X-Files, Suspect Zero still works on its own merits. That's largely thanks to the ambitions of director E. Elias Merhige, best known for the beautiful and bizarre Shadow Of The Vampire. Merhige invests a lot of meaning in each shot, and unpacks it all with a storyteller's grace in his commentary. He's got a strong, well-conceived vision, and he opens up the movie nicely even if his shots sometimes fail to convey all his intentions. If his themes of justice and predestination are buried more deeply than he imagines and are less compelling than Seven's ideas about quiet virtue in the face of gaudy evil, they still serve to imbue what could have been a run-of-the-mill thriller with a powerful sense of doom.
The basic story seems more than a little X-Files: a serial killer may be using paranormal methods to stalk and kill other serial killers. The pairing of he-and-she FBI agents, one of them troubled, surely invokes Scully and Mulder. Fortunately, Aaron Eckhart in no way resembles David Duchovny, and Ben Kingsley is, as always, brilliant.
Extras Director commentary, four-part doc on "remote viewing" psychic ability, alternate ending, Internet trailer. Wide-screen, English, French 5.1. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Primer (MGM, 2004) D: Shane Carruth, w/ Carruth, David Sullivan. Rating: NNN
Where most time travel stories go for big effects and coy flirting with the grandfather paradox, this one takes the opposite approach. There's one effect in the whole film, and the focus is on moral dilemmas. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth, working with nearly no budget, puts his time travel device in a garage where four young engineers are trying to start their own company. Its an accidental by-product of something else, and only two of the group understand what they've got. Later, the working machine that carries them a few days into the past is hidden in a storage locker. The ordinary middle-class locations do a lot to freshen the story and draw us into the moral issues, particularly trust, and dangers implicit in time travel.
The performances match the locations - low-key, not very emotional, not very articulate - in a way that fits the characters' engineering mindsets and lets us feel their moral naíveté without condescension. All these factors also allow Carruth to spin his story in highly unusual directions when things start to go wrong. In place of monsters or fleeing villains, this story is propelled by ordinary motives and charged with ordinary fears.
In his commentary, Carruth freely admits that the film's biggest weakness is the sound, a function of his inexperience, and he's right. There's a lot of dialogue, and the characters are terse, so the action's a bit hard to follow at times. The English-language subtitles take care of that nicely.
Extras Director commentary; director, cast and crew commentary. Wide-screen. English, Spanish. Subtitles in English and Spanish.
Elektra (Fox, 2005) D: Rob Bowman, w/ Jennifer Garner, Goran Visnjic. Rating: NN
There is one shining moment in Elektra, about 70 minutes in, when floating, flying bedsheets fill a grand room. Pure, pointless delight connected to nothing else in the movie, it'd have René Magritte dancing in his grave. For the rest, it's "How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways."
First and foremost are Jennifer Garner's eyes. She's a talented actress, and the camera likes her. She looks enough like a morally ambiguous, psychologically damaged kung fu assassin in the dialogue scenes. But when she's face-to-face with lethal foes and needs to project deadly determination, she can't. All that comes across is vague anxiety - which alone cripples the film completely.
But it's not the only flaw. The emotions are flat and paint-by-numbers all the way. Her bond with the father and daughter she's first bound to kill, then bound to protect is unconvincing on every level. The bad guys seem to have no purpose but to fight the good guys, who seem to have no purpose but to fight the bad guys, and everybody's character is so one-dimensional as to make Mortal Kombat look like Hamlet.
The rampant overcutting makes it worse, leaching out the thrills so far that even in the movie's best stunt - Elektra rides a falling tree to the ground - we can barely tell what's happening, let alone see that it's Garner. The stunt looks better in the making-of doc.
And that's the only reason to watch the extras. Otherwise, its all shameless self-promotion that reaches its nadir when Garner tells us Elektra was made for the fans and the filmmakers only care about their response. At least she has the grace to be as unconvincing here as in the death-stare scenes.
Extras Making-of docs, star and director interviews. Wide-screen. English 5.1, French and Spanish surround. English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season (Fox, 1972) created by David Davis, Lorenzo Music, w/ Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette. Rating: NN
nostalgia ain't what it used to be, and old sitcoms don't always hold up the way we want them to. The Bob Newhart Show is a case in point. The series was very popular in the 70s, and lots of people have fond memories of bemused psychologist Bob Hartley, his lively, sexy wife, Emily, and their wacky associates.
What a new viewing reveals is a clunky vehicle for a star whose talents are limited to his dry delivery and a set of expressions ranging from slight annoyance to slight bafflement. Those talents and an innovative approach to content propelled him to the top of the stand-up comedy heap in the mid-60s, but they're not enough to sustain a half-hour sitcom.
As if to compensate, everyone around Newhart mugs wildly, eyes rolling, teeth flashing, desperately selling every gesture. Even Suzanne Pleshette, who's always displayed fine comedic gifts, gets into the act. She improves later in the season when she gets to drop the girl-wife hair and costume of the early episodes and develop a sharper-minded persona.
This is mild fare at best, and the people at Fox must know it, for they're putting out the three-disc set (arriving April 12) without a single extra. Newhart and Pleshette are still around and still working; they've probably got interesting things to say. But maybe Fox is saving it for later seasons, when the show was considerably better.
Extras Full-screen. English, Spanish. English and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, April 12
Bad Education (Columbia TriStar, 2004) Pedro Almodóvar's tale of love and betrayal among boys, priests and men.
The Flower Of My Secret (Columbia TriStar, 1995) Almodóvar's comedy- drama about a romance novelist who will try anything to change her life.
Hotel Rwanda (MGM, 2004) Terry George's acclaimed story of the Rwandan genocide, with Don Cheadle.
DiG! (Palm Pictures/Morningstar, 2004) In-your-face documentary on the rivalry between almost-famous rival bands the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre..
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb