...Around (2008)

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"No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude... finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. Learning for instance, to eat when he's hungry and sleep when he's sleepy."
-- Jack Kerouac
(Lonesome Traveler

Although in this particular instance Kerouac was writing about solitude in the wilderness-- in essence it's this same rite of passage that we all go through when moving from adolescence into adulthood and learning to rely on ourselves. While some of the luckier ones have trust funds and nest eggs and allowances that last well throughout their collegiate endeavors, the rest of us have to make a wager on our future by trying to figure out just what we want out of life, how much we're willing to risk financially and physically in deciding whether to enlist or enroll, to go backpacking in Europe or out there on the American road.

Oh, the Places You'll Go! isn't just the name of a beloved Dr. Suess book that's become standard fare for graduation gifts but also a vague promise that there's something waiting out there for each one of us as Doyle Simms (Rob Evans) says early on in writer/director David Spaltro's heartfelt and earnest feature filmmaking debut.

Leaving an unhappily dysfunctional home in Jersey City for film school across the river in New York, Doyle quickly learns that both the mythic power of cinema he experienced in his youth as a way to escape his parents' tears and divorce as well as all of the cliches about the "city that never sleeps" isn't quite as ideal as he'd imagined.

Assured by his professors that his visual arts college is "cutting edge" as he listens to the pretentious and morbid film plots about homeless gay men with H.I.V. from his self-important classmates, Doyle realizes after his first deflating year that not only is the education ridiculously expensive but he isn't exactly sure he really wants to be there in the first place.

In his hesitation, financial aid paperwork gets delayed and although he ultimately returns to the city figuring anything is better than where he was in his constant struggle to find "home" in Jersey, the actuality of his having a home is jeopardized when the loans don't come through.

While most of us would've tucked our tail between our legs and moved home-- the determined, stubborn and incredibly proud Doyle puts his creativity to dangerous use, spreading out his tuition payments over seventeen credit cards (including inventing a few fake businesses to keep the money and plastic coming in) and working thankless jobs to cover the minimum monthly payments.

Bravely renting a cheap locker for belongings he can't carry on his back and roughing it in the evenings as insomnia sets in at Penn and Grand Central Station, collecting cans by night along with fellow homeless book seller Saul (Ron Brice), Doyle leads a "dual life" by day parading as an average film student. Although, of course to the audience and any character who is paying attention, we realize that there's something in his eyes and his confident manner of speech that gives the young man a weariness and maturity about him far beyond his years.

Admirably, in other hands, the film could've easily turned overly melodramatic or even old but with a winningly charismatic performance by Evans and Spaltro's emphasis on the resilience of the human spirit, optimism, and passion, it becomes something very truthful and heartfelt as it continues. Adding to the film's refreshing tenderness which is elevated by Evans as he dances off the sides of walls and always keeps his head up-- one of the lonely New York souls straight out of Kerouac with much more humor and empathy--is the welcome turn by Molly Ryman as Allyson, an aspiring actress who becomes one of Doyle's closest friends, despite an instant romantic chemistry that exists just beneath the surface.

While we ultimately realize that for Doyle to move on, he'll need to revisit his past and face the reasons for his flight and the film struggles a bit whenever he leaves New York for New Jersey, most likely because aside from his best friend Logic (Marcel Torres)--the other characters (especially his mother played by Bernice Mosca) don't generate much sympathy. Despite this, Spaltro never loses his focus and we're incredibly invested in Doyle's plight.

A highly personal film self-financed with a budget of $150,000 ("or 40 credit cards" as Spaltro gamely jokes) and filmed over 21 days in a whirlwind of 190 locations-- while of course, since time was a factor there are a few scenes (mostly the mother and son plot-line) that feel rushed, others are simply extraordinary in their sophistication, beauty, and maturity which goes above and beyond the narcissistic cliched twenty-something "just out of film school" works that have flooded the Do-It-Yourself! or Mumblecore movement.

Polished and impressively written and generating promising buzz on the film festival circuit, Spaltro's emotionally satisfying ...Around boasts a tremendous performance from its leading man who manages to move us with subtle nuances like the way he constantly looks in the mirror alone and says "Hello, Stranger" as if trying to get into the character Doyle needs to play that particular day to the outside world as a young man pretending he has it all together.

Additionally tapping right in to the same need our generation has for genuine tales of coming-of-age in the vein of Zach Braff's unique Garden State as opposed to the American Pie styled fare we're routinely served at the multiplex, the film is also notable for its incredible score by Vita Tanga and an emphasis on local New York indie rock bands such as Black Hollies, The Diggs, Messinian (Download Tracks Here), My Teenage Stride and others which immediately give it a sense of authenticity as well as time and place.

Currently screening on the festival circuit, the talented filmmaker's debut work is scheduled to find its way onto DVD and online (via digital distribution) in the near future. And while I urge you to check it out when ...Around is near you, additionally, it's sure to make you look forward to the next films from the writer/director and his talented cast.


New on DVD & Blu-ray for the Week of 12/28/08

Jen's Pick of the Week

Alan Ball's
Independent Spirit Award Nominated


* Note: A few of the movies listed below are repeats-- with the holiday season, there were some conflicting ads regarding a few release dates so to keep you fully updated, here are the official titles and reviews (if applicable).

Likewise, as I'm still playing catch-up on my workload, please stay tuned for additional Blu-ray reviews of this week's releases of The Duchess, Ghost, and The Truman Show in the near future.

Days of Thunder (Blu-ray Review)

The Duchess (Blu-ray Review)

Eagle Eye (Blu-ray Review)

Ghost Town (Blu-ray Review)

Surfer, Dude (Blu-ray Review)


Explore The Top Releases
Below on Amazon.com:

Including Some Wonderful Old Favorites
From Universal Studios & Focus Features
Re-Released with "Movie Cash"


Blu-ray Review: Surfer, Dude (2008)

Catch a Wave


Fitting for a film that espouses surfer philosophy of peace and harmony between man and nature, "green" activists Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson co-star alongside actor and producer Matthew McConaughey in Surfer, Dude. And despite its budget of six million dollars that looks as though it was spent on lavish location shoots and production design, you can bet that the filmmakers saved an awful lot of "green" when it came to the costume department. After all, it does star the incessantly topless McConaughey and for those of you who feel that seeing the blonde haired Texan shirtless only a few times per year just isn't quite enough-- rest assured you can get your fix in Dude which finds him fittingly "surf ready" (a.k.a. nearly nude) at all times.

Yet, far be it for the 100% male producers, screenwriters, cinematographer and director not to offer up some beach bunnies as well. For, have no fear, fellas-- silicone enhanced cleavage and topless women abound in the laid-back surf culture depicted in documentarian turned feature filmmaker S.R. Bindler's latest film.

A self-described "seven year labor of love," spearheaded by McConaughey and some of his oldest friends-- fans can consider both the real-life "naked bongo" arrest and the endless scenes of the actor shirtless (with little prompting) in previous films like Fool's Gold, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch all rehearsal for the actor to fully get into the role of "longboarding soul surfer" and near full-time stoner Steve Addington.

The oft-cited "nature boy" of the sport-- shortly into the film, "Add" returns from an international trip surfing around the world back to a very different Malibu which is trying to cash in on riders who just love to catch a wave. With his clueless and bong-happy manager Jack (a hilarious Woody Harrelson) trying to talk some sense into the "mind open, heart enlarged, soul receptive" mantra spouting zen-like Add that they need to begin to "fertilize the money tree so it can keep growing," Add reluctantly listens to a pitch from retired surfer turned sell-out Eddie Zarno (Jeffrey Nordling).

Now the owner of Add's contract and eager to cut off his expense account if the laid-back surfer won't bend to his well, Zarno tries to force Addington to join his Cinemax styled MTV's The Real World meets Big Brother beach-house reality show and take part in a virtual reality video game to introduce "land-locked kids" in Kansas to both surfing and the digital revolution.

Angered by the prospect to become "some ass-clown in a green room," since by trade he tells others (including a hilarious introduction to airport security in the film's beginning) that he's "a surfer, dude," Add declines only to find himself hard up for cash and waves when there's a surf-drought and Malibu's waters go surf-less for roughly two months.

Building a relationship with Alexi Gilmore's Danni-- a beautiful and brainy East Coast businesswoman (whom Add of course simply dubs "East Coast") whose Master's Degree smarts and tech savvy kick in far too late upon discovering Zarno's a first-class sleaze-- Add, Danni, Jack, and his friends (Willie Nelson and Scott Glenn) help set him back on the right course back to surfing bliss.

While it's far more enjoyable than Fool's Gold on the "McConaughey Meter," Dude is bogged down by a ludicrously simplistic plot that inexplicably moved through countless drafts and four writers who toyed with it over the course of nearly a decade, making McConaughey's making-of-featurette confession that "this has been the most fulfilling creative experience I've ever had-- ever-- hands down," especially heartbreaking.

Additionally, it's curiously devoid of the actor's usual charm. And while this could've been because of the demands of the shoot and his having to wear numerous hats (and very few shirts) in getting the film made as we discover in the twenty-two minute behind-the-scenes documentary "Surfer, Dude, The Real Story" included on the Blu-ray disc, I was also left wondering if it was perhaps because of the poorly written characterization which doesn't give him an arc that justifies its eighty-five minute running time. Essentially-- while great as a one-sentence joke or a guaranteed laugh in a pitch room to hear about stoner surf gurus played by Nelson, Harrelson, and McConaughey-- as a project, Dude seems as though it would've worked best as a killer SNL skit.

Although he tries his damndest and he really manages to sell the persona-- mostly Addington feels like a repeatedly photo-copied and washed out hodgepodge of McConaughey's memorable character from Dazed and Confused blended with Sean Penn's stoner Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Jeff Bridges' The Dude from The Big Lebowski.

While admittedly, as a fan of both surf documentaries and classic cheesy surf films I did get a bigger kick out of it than most reviewers, overall Surfer, Dude seemed like it was desperate in need of more waves, humor, laughs, and the same easy-going, affable, and (cough) less pot-addled characters he always nails in even the smallest of roles such as recently playing Ben Stiller's agent in Tropic Thunder. Likewise it made me miss his stellar and often overlooked dramatic work in films like A Time to Kill, Frailty, Lonestar, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, The Newton Boys, Amistad, and We Are Marshall.

Despite this-- for his fans, it's definitely worth a look and I'd rather watch a Surfer, Dude marathon over one additional screening of Fool's Gold and for that I do have to give major credit to a great part of the film's success in its beautiful lush near '70s look from masterful cinematographer Elliot Davis (Out of Sight, Twilight, I Am Sam). Continuing his awe-inspiring talent by improving upon lackluster material, in the past Davis has also managed to elevate B-movies such as Bronwen Hughes' Sandra Bullock/Ben Affleck Rom-Com Forces of Nature, John Schlesigner's Madonna/Rupert Everett vehicle The Next Best Thing, and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's Reese Witherspoon sequel Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde.

Although it will also be released on DVD, surf fans or cinematography buffs and those with Blu capabilities who haven't been scared off from the star post-Fool's Gold or the number of harsh Dude reviews, Blu-ray is the ultimate way to appreciate Davis's gorgeous work. And Anchor Bay Entertainment's superb 2-disc set (although oddly misspelled "2-Disk Special Edition") also includes a digital copy of the film available for compatible PCs, deleted scenes, feature commentary from McConaughey, the theatrical trailer, as well as the complete uncensored 12-Webside Surfer, Dude.

Likewise, on a Blu-ray disc side-note: be sure to watch the previews before the film as Werner Herzog and Woody Harrelson show off their comedic improvisational skills in Zak Penn's uproarious The Grand and in one of the most unspeakably politically incorrect yet hilarious trailers of 2008 for the Eva Longoria-Parker and Jason Biggs comedy Lower Learning, also available from Anchor Bay.

And for a double-feature of "missed it at the multiplex" films featuring some of the Tropic Thunder cast, renters of Surfer, Dude should also pick up the far superior, underrated comic gem Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan which sneaked onto shelves last week.


Blu-ray Review: Ghost Town (2008)

Haunting You With Laughter
On DVD & Blu-ray


In what should have been the crossover romantic comedy smash that would introduce British funny man Ricky Gervais to U.S. audiences who haven't yet had the pleasure of catching him in various BBC shows such as the original version of The Office and HBO's Extras, Gervais elevates a screwball inspired romantic comedy fantasy to hilarious effect.

Opposite two of the most genuinely likable and underrated versatile talents-- the unique comedienne Tea Leoni (a master at the art of a good old fashioned pratfall) and our classy and handsome contemporary American version of Cary and Hugh Grant, Mr. Greg Kinnear-- the trio charm their way into our hearts in one of the sharpest, most surprisingly creative and intelligent films in the tired Rom-Com genre since the early 2008 winner Definitely, Maybe.

Now available on both DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount and DreamWorks Home Entertainment, Ghost Town is not only the sleeper comedy of the year but is ironically being released on disc during a week when I think it would've garnered a happy and willing audience ready to turn their back on both the influx of doom and gloom Oscar bait and a depressing economy.

Simply put, America is in dire need of a laugh as we learned last month when Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn stole Twilight's thunder with Four Christmases and those who move in the direction of Spiderman and Panic Room scribe David Koepp's Town will find themselves rewarded time and time again.

But, before I critique the aspects of the Blu-ray disc itself and visit the disc's Special Features, I'll serve up a second helping of my first theatrical review of the film.

Ghost Town


David Koepp

Ricky Gervais as a romantic leading man?
"Are you having a laugh?"
Surprisingly no, but Gervais makes us laugh throughout.

Several years back and shortly after the initial hedonistic pleasurable rush I felt upon the installation of our family's DirecTV wore off, I realized how very overwhelming it was to suddenly have hundreds of channels at our disposal. Whether you were into knitting or cooking or knitting while you were cooking, there seemed to be something for everyone and I distinctly remember the one fateful evening when my remote landed on the face of British comedian Ricky Gervais on BBC America. Of course, I didn't know it was Gervais at the time— I was so completely sucked into the mockumentary that was the British version of The Office, I felt that Gervais and his character, David Brent were one and the same. I set the remote down and there it stayed as I was fascinated, appalled, and utterly riveted by the absurdly hilarious utterances coming out of the mouth of Brent/Gervais.

While Garry Shandling's self-centeredness on The Larry Sanders Show fit his character's showbiz lifestyle to a "T" and Larry David's curmudgeon shtick on Curb Your Enthusiasm is the perfect extension of Seinfeld's George Costanza, there was something that hit harder about Gervais' characterization. Namely that he felt more realistic, painful, and heartrending than his overly animated American counterpart Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) on the funny but thematically different version of NBC'sThe Office. We empathize with Brent on a level we don't connect to with Scott and the brilliance of that lies in the talent of the show's co-creator and star, Ricky Gervais.

The hilarious mastermind and co-creator of not just The Office but HBO's Extras has had bit parts in American films over the past few years such as opposite Robert De Niro in Stardust and with Christopher Guest's talented improvisational crew in For Your Consideration. Yet writer/director David Koepp—the man who penned such contemporary classics as Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Panic Room, Mission: Impossible, and Spiderman—gave Gervais the chance to be a full-fledged leading man in this month's surprisingly freshest and most entertaining new comedy, Ghost Town.

Yes, that's right-- you don't need an eye exam-- Ricky Gervais was cast as a romantic hero. And no, I'm not, as his Extras character would say, "having a laugh." While no doubt half of you are asking "Who's Ricky Gervais?" and those familiar with his work may even be having doubts despite their admiration for him, fear not—when it comes to second thoughts, Koepp is the first one to admit that he perhaps regrets the casting decision. And his reservations aren't because Gervais isn't great in the part and hilarious, but because as opposed to in England where the man has become their country's Robin Williams, here in the states he isn't quite as well known.

While I'm no Miss Manners, it does seem sort of disloyal for Koepp to admit this publicly especially during the same week the film from Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks, and Spyglass Entertainment opens, but Koepp hopes that his winning performance in the film will change this reality and make Gervais not just a full-fledged leading man but a full-fledged American star. I'm predicting he's right and word-of-mouth will not only propel this film to a bigger audience with each passing week but that Gervais will also be considered in Robin Williams' company on our own soil as well. He almost certainly still has his work cut out for him. I still remember the evening of The Golden Globes a few years back when The Office won two awards and the chilly reception and deer-in-the-headlights look given to him by such A-list stars as Billy Bob Thornton as he and the cast bounded towards the stage, no doubt wondering what was with the latest British invasion. Indeed, Gervais is the reason why Ghost Town's hokey premise works and he's so completely "on" in every scene that it's a wonder any other actor could keep a straight face.

As Bertam Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who seems to have chosen his profession for its endless opportunities to force chatty patients into shutting up with various tools, plasters, and tricks of the trade, Gervais plays yet another jerk to incredible perfection. Whether he's avoiding his fellow dentist's impromptu office party by sneaking out the door or forcing the elevator doors closed when his neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni) yells for him to hold it open, Pincus is a man without friends or conversation. He frankly prefers to keep it that way. This all changes when he goes in for a routine colonoscopy and makes the request to be completely anesthetized for the procedure.

Hospital Check-In

The Medical Staff

After he's released from the hospital a day later, he discovers that he's being followed by a large number of pushy New Yorkers with unfinished business. No, they aren't people whom he's wronged in the past, but people who find hope in Pincus due to his ability to see and converse with them as they're all, save Pincus, dead. Rushing back to the hospital to find out why he's experiencing what he fears are hallucinations, his inept surgeon (a hilarious Kristen Wiig) explains that the reason he's seeing ghosts is because, well, he actually died "for a little bit" himself.

"You Died."

Pincus' hopes of avoiding others are dashed as the films tagline promises that "he sees dead people… and they annoy him." This is especially the case when the self-centered and unofficial leader of the ghosts famous for his knack of talking people into things, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) promises that he'll help Gervais get back to his old life if he does Herlihy one favor.

"I Need Your Help."

"New York is Lousy with Ghosts."

With his dashing classic movie star looks and easy charm, Kinnear is the natural choice for the role, playing off the wicked Gervais in the same way he interacted the misanthropic character played by the Oscar winning Jack Nicholson in Kinnear's award nominated role in As Good As It Gets. Unwilling to let Pincus off the hook, the two finally reach an arrangement to solve Frank's problem, namely that his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) is about to marry a man whom Frank fears is no good.

Even though he shouldn't be one to talk as—upon the film's opening—we realize that Frank had been two-timing his wife with a Yoga hottie, once Pincus sees Gwen delivering a lecture on a mummy for her archaeological work, he finds himself instantly attracted. While to Frank, all Pincus needs to do is distract Gwen enough to make her have second thoughts about marrying a picture perfect human rights lawyer, Pincus takes the assignment literally, falling for the beautiful, brainy, and delightfully odd Gwen. Happily for Pincus, as evidence by her work with mummies, Gwen shares an enthusiasm for people who don't talk and also has a bizarre interest in dentistry.

Although Gwen hesitates to give him the time of day, they live in the same building and he has ignored her on numerous occasions in the past, Pincus keeps trying in one of the film's funniest scenes as he tries to engage her in conversation following her lecture. At one point his ramblings become so ridiculously hysterical, I couldn't even hear Gervais due to the audience's laughter. He and Leoni work very well-together. As I wrote about Leoni in my review of You Kill Me, her characterization here made me, "again appreciate the delightful screwball-inspired nuances that Tea Leoni always brings to her characters and wish that she was given far more cinematic opportunities." Equally adept at pratfalls as she is with verbal gymnastics and improvisations, I began to wonder how much Gervais came up with on the fly. It's a pleasure to watch, even in tiny scenes like this one.

Gwen's Dog

A bright and sophisticatedly witty romantic comedy, I'm expecting Ghost Town will be the ultimate sleeper that could, if enough people take a chance on a film with a man they don't recognize on the poster. Admittedly, while the plot setup is a bit generic and we don't really need yet another ghost movie, the three leads (not to mention the supporting players like Wiig) are all in perfect form.

Several years ago, director Brett Ratner said in a newspaper interview that he hoped his Christmas comedy The Family Man starring Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle would help America realize what a talent Tea Leoni truly was. And while his film didn't quite reach the level that he aspired in the way that Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally launched Meg Ryan (as he is after all Ratner and not Reiner), here's to hoping Koepp's film does double duty.

Ghost Town should help reestablish the gifted comedienne Tea Leoni (who in my book often recalls Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur) and should also successfully introduce the unconverted to the comic mastermind that is Ricky Gervais… even if we're never buying the fact that he's a real life dentist with those less-than-perfect teeth. Still, who cares about teeth when it's the things coming out of his mouth that are the most memorable? So in the end, we're "having a laugh" indeed... over and over and over again.

The Blu-ray

Eager to leave the big-budget special effects films he'd worked on in the past behind him for the welcome change of pace to sit back and try to "stay out of the actors' way," writer/director David Koepp happened upon the idea for Ghost Town when he himself longed to stay out of everyone's way.

Having what he described as a really bad day on a film set, Koepp wandered around until he was struck by the sight of a wooden tooth hanging outside a building and thought how great it would be to craft a character who loves dentistry because he can shove cotton into people's mouths and avoid conversation.

In the film's entertaining twenty-two minute making-of featurette, Koepp describes his creative approach including his wish to only offer a few simple effects as opposed to the CGI prevalent in his bigger films he'd penned for directors like Spielberg. Instead, he preferred to opt for "romantic comedy effects" with entertaining new ghostly quirks such as having characters wear simply what they died in (naturally giving Kinnear a tuxedo so that he's the "host" for the film and immediately stands out) and modeling Leoni's character after Cary Grant's brainy and bright yet often distractedly dizzy Bringing Up Baby paleontologist.

Of course, the main star of the extras is Gervais who crafts a hilarious false anecdote about meeting his director for the first time and chats up the camera along with his dog Gia. And, to be expected, the other actors and Koepp describe how hard it was to keep from laughing when they shared the same scene as Gervais.

Proof of this can be found in the genuinely hysterical outtakes called "Some People Can Do It," (the second of three special features all offered in Blu-ray High Definition) as the actors crack each other up and Leoni scolds Gervais to keep filming and redo a scene when he rambles an alternate version of a line to ridiculous effect. Providing further humorous fodder-- Koepp and Gervais take part in a feature length commentary and those curious about the movie magic side of Town can take in the "Ghostly Effects" extra as well.

Crisp color and excellent flesh tones in a superb transfer with zero artifacting and Dolby TrueHD English 5.1 Surround (as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital), Ghost Town's Blu-ray quality is another solid offering from Paramount and DreamWorks which seems to have the format down to a science. Likewise, the studios also thankfully provide subtitles in not just French, Spanish and Portuguese but English as well so that way you can read the jokes you find you've missed from laughing so much the first time around. And luckily for us, now that it's available on disc, we can replay our favorite scenes-- including the awkward romantic evening and Gervais' scenes with Wiig-- again and again, managing to go about "having a laugh" as loud as we want in the privacy of our own homes without worrying about anyone shoving cotton into our mouths.

Blu-ray Review: Eagle Eye (2008)

Your Cell Phone Will Never
Look the Same Again


One of those edge-of-your seat roller-coaster rides that lost some of its signal strength following the overwhelm of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Jon Favreau's Iron Man which eclipsed every other action film at the box office-- D.J. Caruso's Eagle Eye has been given the deluxe treatment in a dazzling digital transfer to Blu-ray by DreamWorks and Paramount.

Offering viewers a second chance to get caught up in the ideal format that matches the high-tech paranoia and breakneck pace of the film, I'll tackle this review in two parts-- first addressing the film itself (with movie clips, etc.) by presenting my original theatrical review and then taking on the Blu-ray aspects directly.

I. The Film

Eagle Eye

D.J. Caruso

Next time your phone rings and it’s just a telemarketer or a public opinion poll, consider yourself lucky. Director D.J. Caruso reteams with his Disturbia leading man Shia LeBeouf for yet another high tech Hitchcockian styled paranoid thriller sure to make one initially suspicious of all incoming calls or texts for at least twenty-four hours after his film Eagle Eye ends.

While that can only come as a pleasant surprise for those frequently over their cell phone minute plans and the parents struggling to intervene in their teenager’s text message addiction, in the world of Eagle Eye (view the trailer), the phone becomes even scarier than it was in Wes Craven’s “the call is coming from inside the house” styled horror trilogy, Scream.

Thanks to our current era of the online banking, the Patriot Act, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, wiretaps, online tax and vehicle registration, scanned medical charts, traffic cameras, elevator cameras, hidden microphones and GPS navigational systems, now more than ever Orwellian’s Big Brother is watching.

Blending together Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, Wes Craven’s Scream, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Jan de Bont’s Speed, and even a conveyor belt homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, D.J. Caruso’s fast-paced stunner is by far the most gripping thrill ride of 2008.

Much like David Fincher’s Panic Room, Eagle Eye has a deliciously simplistic set-up that the team of writers milk for all it's worth as regular citizens find themselves in extraordinary circumstances after a mysterious woman with a chillingly calm yet controlling voice (Oscar nominee Julianne Moore) phones two strangers and informs them that they’ve “been activated.”

Activated for what, neither character is entirely sure, however they quickly realize that their lives as well as their loved ones are in overwhelming danger unless they comply with each and every demand she aims their direction whether it’s holding security guards hostage to obtain a top-secret briefcase or fleeing from authorities.

Set in the near future—January of 2009 to be exact and beginning with an introduction right out of the world of Tom Clancy and Jason Bourne—it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize they’re being set up as terrorists as part of a vast governmental conspiracy but who authorized the game and how do you request a time-out when you’re not the one calling the shots?

The first victim is the delightful wisecracking slacker Jerry Shaw (LeBeouf, whose ability to charm, flirt, scheme and improvise reminds me of a young Paul Newman). When he isn’t busy being rude to the customers at the Copy Cabana or manipulating his coworkers in a masterful poker bluff, he’s using his charisma like a weapon on a fellow transit passenger or trying to make ends meet with his incessantly late rent.

After he gets word that his patriotic and heroic twin brother, the Air Force officer Ethan Shaw (complete with a genius I.Q.) has perished in a truck accident in Washington D.C., Jerry is stunned to discover upon returning from the funeral that his bank account is well into the six figures and he’s received an alarming number of dangerous packages containing firearms, bomb-making equipment and poison delivered to his apartment. Within seconds, his cell phone rings and Moore’s voice coolly instructs him that he should run as the F.B.I. will be there directly.

Sure that this is all some sort of easy misunderstanding, Jerry ignores the bullying voice and is interrogated for suspected terrorist activity and about his deceased brother by the no-nonsense Joint Terrorism Task Force Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton). Advised that it’s not the best time to become a terrorist by Morgan (just one of many zingers nailed by Thornton), Jerry continues to plead his case as a quintessentially Hitchcockian innocent man to no avail.

And after Ethan’s old colleague, Zoe Perez (Rosario Dawson) a fellow Air Force officer arrives to find out exactly what’s going on with the situation on behalf of Defense Secretary Callister (The Shield’s Michael Chiklis), Jerry is stunned when the Attorney General faxes in an authorization for him to make a phone call, yet far more concerned when he discovers the voice cutting into his call is none other than Julianne Moore’s. Yet this time, instead of ignoring the stranger’s demands, like Keanu Reeves’ Neo in The Matrix, he accepts her advice to flee from the F.B.I.


Meanwhile, as Jerry is well into his own plight, we encounter the second victim of the mysterious Moore in the form of the lovely Michelle Monaghan (Made of Honor). A devoted single mother and minimum wage earning paralegal who grudgingly packs off her beloved trumpet playing son for band camp in Washington D.C., on her first night out with the girls, Monaghan’s Rachel Holloman receives a similarly frightening call.

“Rachel Holloman, you’ve been activated.”

While Rachel has the benefit of being out in public and not trapped in a tiny apartment filled with mercenary equipment fitting for a Unabomber, she takes a decidedly different and logical approach by dialing 911 before Moore cuts back into her call and tells her that if she continues to disobey, her son will be killed. And it’s only a matter of time before Jerry and Rachel collide by the demands of the dangerous stranger, being led on a deadly scavenger hunt as they make their way towards a fateful State of the Union address, with Thornton and Dawson’s characters following the entire way.

Car Chase

While it’s filled with intense, nonstop action sequences that continuously top the one before it in a way for which neither actor is unprepared (as LeBeouf had starred in Transformers and Indiana Jones and Monaghan had been cast in Mission Impossible 3), one of the benefits of Eagle Eye’s approach is that it seemingly demands intellectual audience participation as we strive to stay ahead of Moore’s demands along with our heroes. Whether it’s imagining what we would do in a similar situation from just hanging up the phone or merely refusing or trying to change a plan—despite a finale that does involve a major 2001: A Space Odyssey styled suspension of disbelief—every action initiated by Jerry and Rachel seems entirely plausible.

However, one major drawback involves the presentation as similar to Cloverfield, the filming style of a constantly moving camera is hard on the eyes especially when rapid-fire quick cuts that flow far less smoothly than the comparable ones in last year’s Bourne Ultimatum are added into the mix. And additionally, the volume, much like Dark Knight and Iron Man seems as though it could cause hearing loss yet if you pack along ear plugs and make sure you don’t sit too close to the screen, the comfort level for viewing should benefit considerably.

Still, despite this, I must admit that it’s by far my most recommendable blockbuster of the year so far and one sure to appeal to not just Orwellian and Philip K. Dick devotee cyber techies but especially action junkies eager to re-experience the same type of edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster we did more than a decade ago with Jan de Bont’s Speed. And this is ever more the case since, despite the continuous calls to go green, a relatively small number of us ride the bus but nearly everyone and their brother has at least one cell phone. Who will be calling you next? Can you hear me now?

II. Blu-ray

While the theatrical presentation of Caruso's action-packed thriller left viewers with a bit of eyestrain as we struggled to keep up, the transfer to Blu-ray actually improves the film in my opinion as DreamWorks and Paramount continually strive for the highest level of picture and sound, presenting Eagle Eye in 16x9 widescreen 1080p High Definition with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD sound.

Whereas some older films manage to show their age when they make the format change, Eye is hitting Blu at precisely the right time, by including every single extra (aside from the photo gallery) in HD quality and giving viewers-- depending on their set-up-- the chance to tweak the picture to brighten up the predominantly dark color scheme, duplicate the intensity, and-- even without a five speaker and subwoofer wired room-- adjust the crystal clear sound to the right level for their particular comfort.

Including the nearly required favorites of a gag reel, the original theatrical trailer, and deleted scenes, I was particularly drawn in by the various making-of featurettes that take you on location in Washington D.C., on the road, or in the best one, given a full-access pass to "Asymmetrical Warfare: The Making of Eagle Eye."

Offering a nice balance between cast and crew interviews and rockin' stunt set-ups, we discover that essentially Disturbia director D.J. Caruso eyed his film as though it were a studio budget "independent movie," or the type of road film he loved back in the '70s like The French Connection (which he cited as a major inspiration).

With a constantly moving production as the entire cast and crew seldom stayed in the same location for more than two days, he freely admits that the first hour of Eye represented a near live-action video game as the characters (similar to the viewer) never knew exactly where the film was going as neither Jerry and Rachel nor the audience had any choice as their telephone narrator led them from Point A to Point B.

With the original idea for the film being hatched in the mind of American master Steven Spielberg a decade ago-- Eye's director and star LeBeouf marvel at the fact that back in the late '90s, the film would've fallen into the category of science fiction whereas now they realized that Spielberg's vision was not only possible but entirely probable.

As we're increasingly aware that our "digital existence" can be "more prevalent" than our "real one," the filmmakers strived for authenticity in making sure that everything that happens in the film is viable as you can witness in the especially creepy scientific, Orwellian extra "Is My Cell Phone Spying On Me?"

Essentially reuniting with the same community of professionals both behind-the-camera and in-front of the lens that has helped present such modern day action films as Disturbia and Mission Impossible 3, LeBeouf was in ideal hands, being approached with the project from his "father figure" Spielberg even before he'd been handed Indiana Jones.

Relishing at the opportunity to work with Caruso again and joking that by now following Disturbia they have such a fast gesture based shorthand that the men can read each other with the minimum of words, Caruso was equally thrilled to present the former nineteen year old boy as a leading man.

Filmed when he was twenty-one but portraying a twenty-five year old, LeBeouf was teamed with a co-star six years his senior, but after you catch the off-screen chemistry and camaraderie between the adventurous and brainy Michelle Monaghan and LeBeouf, you realize that as unlikely it may seem on paper, it's actually a perfect fit.

Additionally, LeBeouf humbly noted that when he'd heard Monaghan was hired, he realized that most of the work was already done since she's so talented and they're comfortable with each other-- having worked together on Constantine a number of years earlier. Eager to launch headfirst into the increasingly complicated array of stunt-work (using a minimum of CGI as we're both terrified and impressed to discover in the featurettes), LeBeouf joked that given the fact that they did a large majority of their own stunts, it was constantly Monaghan who was pushing him on, running in four inch heels and hurling her body down a DHL conveyor belt, egging him on when he was tired with the teasing, "Why don't you just man up?"

While techies and special effects junkies will love the "how did they do that?" demonstrations including the big rig flip and the dedication to authentic live-action effects and sure enough, aside from the twenty-five minute HD "Asymmetrical Warfare" extra, there's a number of other making-of bonus features to explore, those who were more intrigued by the Enemy of the State styled ethical questions won't want to skip "Is My Cell Phone Spying on Me?" which interviews experts in the field of cyber security and privacy.

In the same turn, it also offers a creepy challenge to viewers that they should devote one entire day to be aware at how many times their photo is snapped and they are caught on a security camera as they go about their routine. Of course, I'd recommend trying this at your own risk and possibly, so that you don't send yourself into a frenzy, you may want to just go ahead and switch off your cell phone (if you can)... if not for the day than at least for the 117 minute running time of Eagle Eye.