January: A Movie Wasteland

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Jaimie Trueblood / Universal

Alicia Keys in the film Smokin Aces.

Forget April. January is the cruelest month for moviegoers. Nobody in the picture business is bringing forth lilies to enliven the poet's "dead land." While everyone's attention is fixed on the Oscar nominations, it's the moment for cheesy slasher epics and the reluctant release of last year's failed genre effort, movies that may mix "memory and desire" but only in the most unappetizing ways.

OK, I'll drop the T.S. Eliot references. But only if you promise not to waste your time and money on — oh, let's say Smokin' Aces. It's possible that in some half-forgotten pitch meeting someone murmured the phrase "black comedy" in describing their intentions for the movie. It is also possible that names like Scorsese or Tarantino or the Coen brothers were bandied about in that conclave. But what they meant to say was "blood bath."

The situation is that a mob hit has been ordered on a drug-addled Las Vegas magician/informer. Competing hit teams — bounty hunters, neo-Nazis, a pair of deadly lesbian ladies — turn up to compete for the million dollars on offer for completing the job. The FBI, of course, is attempting to protect the man they hope is going to be their star witness. Pretty soon everyone get to killing everyone else. You have quite possibly never seen so much unedifying mayhem in a relatively confined space, the smallest of which is a hotel elevator in which two guys pump uncounted bullets into one another at point blank range. Hmm, one muses — never seen that before.

But that's the full extent of writer-director Joe Carnahan's originality. And since he never bothers to establish why we should care about any of his characters, we just sit there numbly, awaiting the next sensation and trying, without notable success, to comprehend the preposterous backstory — dating back decades — with which it is lackadaisically equipped.

Seraphim Falls has one of those, too. There must be some reason why, in the winter snows of the West's high country, a band of marauders, led by Carver (Liam Neeson), is expending such implacable efforts to wipe out Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). By the time the chase has descended to the desert's burning sands, we learn that the latter was a once-peaceful farmer whose family was wiped out by Civil War irregulars led by Neeson (shades of the much better outlaw Josie Wales). Gideon will have his vengeance if possible, Carver will defend himself by relentlessly attacking him. But the lone victim is a clever cuss, and succeeds in wiping out all of his pursuers save Carver. The fleeing and fighting is intermittently interesting, but one is more interested, frankly, in why Anjelica Huston suddenly intrudes on the film, selling patent medicine and vague spirituality. Also in why the near-moribund western genre suddenly reappears in this rather austere, if handsomely mounted, form. It is the kind of movie that gets you thinking not so much about its ostensible subject, but about how difficult it must have been for director and co-writer David Von Ancken to make — toting all that production gear up into the waist-deep snows, plunging Brosnan (or his stunt double) into the eponymous falls, while wearing a fur coat that must weigh 20 pounds even before it becomes soaking wet. It is not a terrible movie — its beginning holds a certain promise — just, finally, an unengaging one.

Which grants it a certain kinship with Catch and Release, a romantic non-comedy — it's really more in the mode of an old-fashioned "women's picture" — in which a woman named Gray Wheeler (Jennifer Garner) finds her wedding day turning into a funeral for her fiance, suddenly lost in an accident. For reasons best known to her, she continues to hang around his bachelor bungalow in Boulder, Colorado, mourning his passing with two former roommate (Kevin Smith and Sam Jaeger) and a visiting pal named Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who turns out to be much nicer than he first appears to be. They learn that the fiance was perhaps a tad less ideal than Gray thought him to be — a massage therapist from Los Angeles (Juliette Lewis) arrives with a son all are convinced was fathered by Gray's lost love.

You can make a comedy on almost any subject — as Preston Sturges (and even Mel Brooks) have proved. But there's no spark in this one. And no sparkle in Garner's playing. She's an attractive young woman, but her energy is low and her mood is endlessly wistful. Olyphant seems more of a male model than an actor, and the writer-director, Susannah Grant, does not know how to stir her actors up comedically or romantically.

It's an odd thing. Back when men directed women's pictures, they throbbed with energy, perhaps because female behavior was such an enigma to them, perhaps because actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were so headlong, so committed to the emotional extremes. You might not, in the end, believe them, but boy they were gripping to watch. Directors like Grant or Nancy Meyers (of The Holiday among other titles) want to keep their leading ladies unhysteric, as if descents into the irrational were somehow fuel for sexism. But the politely furrowed brow is fundamentally anti-dramatic. You want people in films like this to rip and snort their way to improbable, but somehow satisfying, resolutions.

Unless, of course, you're content to have your convictionless genre picture dumped into January release. Meantime, the viewer's eye wanders toward the calendar — only five more days till February, only another month until the Oscar hype disappears overnight. Only a couple of months until we begin faintly to hear the first drumbeats for the big spring and summer releases. They'll mostly be pretty awful, too. But at least someone will believe in them. Or pretend to.