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Can't Buy a Thrill
Mark Sells

"Have you ever wondered what happened in your house before you lived there?” So says the tag line from the trailer of Cold Creek Manor, an intriguing new thriller promising suspense and mystery. But unfortunately for director Mike Figgis, better known for his Academy Award nominated Leaving Las Vegas, the teaser is just a teaser and the movie is just an average entry in a long line of psychological thriller copycats. Try as it might to hold our attention, it disappoints at every turn, ending in a whimper rather than a bang.

Life is busy for documentarian Cooper Tilson (Dennis Quaid) and his wife Leah (Sharon Stone). The couple live in Manhattan along with their two children, Jesse and Kristen. One day, while Leah is away on a business trip, Cooper navigates through crazed downtown traffic and a variety of distractions to drop the kids off at school. Shortly after getting out of the car, Jesse is accidentally struck by an automobile, and the family is forced to rethink their frantic lives. In an effort to change lifestyles, they decide to leave town and move upstate to the countryside, moving into a repossessed house called Cold Creek Manor. The house is a real fixer upper; yet the Tilsons can hardly beat the price. However, their arrival is met with a series of odd behaviors from the local townsfolk. As the family becomes acquainted with their new surroundings, they discover a variety of historical artifacts, photographs, and heirlooms left behind by the previous owners – some very bizarre. This is all stimulating stuff to Cooper, the noted historian, who quickly becomes interested in assembling all of the pieces from the past.

But somewhere in the middle of it all, a strange man begins to make his presence felt. Dale Massie (Stephen Dorff), who spent the last few years in prison, has returned to the Manor to reclaim his family’s residence. Dale provokes the Tilsons to pay him to clean up the swimming pool and perform other chores around the house. But that’s not enough, for just as Dale shows up, strange things begin to happen – snakes infiltrate the house, a horse winds up in a swimming pool, and Cooper and Leah’s relationship gets strained. Slowly and persistently, Dale tries to force the Tilsons out of the house. He’s the town bully and no one will dare contest him, not even the local law enforcement. As tensions surmount and wills clash, a final confrontation between Dale and Cooper is inevitable, one that will hopefully tie everything together from the past, present, and future of the mysterious mansion.

Cold Creek Manor is a messy, unoriginal thriller. It starts out as a Stephen King-like mystery -- a New York family takes residence in a foreboding mansion in a small town where the local town folk, even the sheriff, act strange. Suddenly, after the son of the previous owner shows up, the film morphs into Cape Fear, with Dale antagonizing the family in a variety of ways, all in order to get the family to leave “his” house. The Tilsons, of course, don’t help matters by making some very illogical choices. There are similarities to Pacific Heights as well, and plot devices from The Ring. Most of all, the film resembles Straw Dogs, the controversial 1971 Sam Peckinpah film with Dustin Hoffman as a mathematician who moves into a new home with his wife only to have his life destroyed by the local townsfolk who are incensed by his arrival.

Besides this quality of being assembled from other (and better) movies, the largest pitfall this film has is that it leaves too many stones unturned. The screenplay, written by first timer Richard Jeffries, presents many plot twists and developments that go unfulfilled and unresolved. There’s even an obnoxious score (by Figgis himself) to tell us when and how we’re supposed to react a certain way. But questions abound: What did Jesse see in the book that told him where the Devil’s Throat was? What is the Devil’s Throat? What is the significance of the cult? How did Dale end up in prison? Why does Ruby (Juliette Lewis) stay with Dale? What was at the bottom of the well? I could go on and on. These are questions you’ll be asking yourself at the end of the movie. It’s as if, after building up the story, the filmmakers forgot where they were going, how they got there, and what to do next. And once the true motives for Dale’s behavior are uncovered, you realize that the filmmakers couldn’t answer the questions themselves and opted for the quick and easy way out.

Yet despite the lack of inventiveness and the unresolved mysteries, the film actually succeeds in one respect: it’s able to generate a stirring and continuous curiosity that keeps us occupied for most of the film. The primary reason is due to the performance of Dorff as the sweaty, violent brute antagonizing the Tilsons in every way imaginable. Dorff is impressively frightening and peculiar, torn asunder by a variety of hidden emotions and far more dynamic a villain than his Deacon Frost in the original Blade. This portrayal is the one worthy element in a film that is devoid of convincinh dialogue or a logical plot. Regrettably, as much as I like Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone, their performances are merely adequate supplements to a screenplay that fails to explore their characters or make sense of their actions.

Cold Creek Manor is one of those films that has great potential, but disappoints when all the dust settles. Instead of presenting us with a refreshing take on the thriller genre, it goes for the contrived, answering complex questions with simple, unsatisfying solutions. After building a story full of suspense and tension, the film wraps things up in ridiculous fashion. At one point Dale says, “A house is just a shell, right? You live in it for a while and then things change.” This film is one of those shells, all empty inside.

Le Divorce is an exercise in stylish etiquette, a scrumptious little film with, despite good intentions, a general lack of direction. Comprised of a series of vignettes, the story focuses on the culture clash between American and French attitudes, behaviors, and mannerisms. Like many films by the producer/director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, it amuses by presenting contrasts - in politics, fashion, food, lifestyles, and sex. Each subject is treated honestly, and delicately, but as a whole the picture seems uncoordinated and jumbled.

The film opens with the arrival in Paris of Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson), on a pleasure trip to see her older sister Roxeanne (Naomi Watts), an accomplished poet living in the City of Lights. Roxeanne and her husband, Charles-Henri, have a little girl and are expecting another child in the next few months. But just before Isabel’s arrival, things turn sour as Charles-Henri leaves his wife for a younger woman. After getting reacquainted with her sister, Roxy breaks the news to Isabel and gradually to her in-laws and parents. Then, while at the in-law’s chateau, Isabel becomes enamored with a much older French diplomat, Edgar Cosset (Thierry Lhermitte), who happens to be Charles-Henri’s uncle. The two become infatuated, and Isabel quickly becomes Edgar’s mistress, a secret that is not easily hidden. As Isabel and Edgar flirt and fling, Roxeanne quickly learns the rules of French divorce settlements. In particular, a family treasure of hers becomes the item of contention. It’s a painting believed to be an original work of 17th Century artist Georges de La Tour and worth oodles of money. This, in turn, prompts Roxy’s family to visit and stage a confrontation with Charles-Henri’s family, the attorneys, and various curators and auction house representatives.

Le Divorce is a handsomely mounted film with little reasoning behind it. Comprised of a series of shorts, it lacks an overall storyline that pieces things together and it defies logic with unnecessary plot devices. You would think that the divorce proceedings would be the central narrative to which everything else revolves; however, if you add up the screen times of the other story arcs, you’ll find that's not the case. In fact, there are about five different kinds of movies found within Le Divorce. You have a realistic drama involving Roxeanne, her daughter, and the actual divorce; you have a whimsical romance between Isabel and Edgar; there’s a thriller component involving a frantic soon to be ex-husband; a biting social commentary and comedy surrounding an auctioned painting; and lastly, an unexpected murder mystery to baffle over. Juggling all of these genres in one film is awkward at best, because the elements seem unrelated and never quite gel when combined.

It’s obvious that writer/director James Ivory should have taken notes from Jill Sprecher's recent Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, a film that was able to handle multiple story lines and yet stay on track with its main theme -- a quest to find and comprehend the meaning of happiness. But Le Divorce doesn't tie the pieces together so much as push them apart. It uses a red Kelly handbag, in reference to the famous Hermes bag that Grace Kelly coveted, as a symbol of class distinction and the mechanism to propel Isabel into cultural enlightenment. But even more bothersome than the “floating red purse” is the development of Matthew Modine as Tellman, the psychotic stalker husband who loves his wife (like a puppy dog) only to see her having an affair with Roxeanne’s husband. The insertion of this character is a blatant cop-out – an attempt to resolve Roxeanne’s emotional instability and to force her to move on with her life. But it’s also an odd disruption, turning a breezy, light romantic comedy into a messy pseudo-drama with few ramifications.

All of that said, I honestly do find most Merchant Ivory films very charming. In their films, you’ll always see a situational analysis of etiquette and style; you’ll always see a fish out of water. In The Mystic Masseur, a grouping of diplomats from around the world congregate at an elegant English home only to be confused with how to eat, what to eat, and how to behave. All of a sudden, one of the diplomats loses his eyepiece in a bowl of soup, which causes quite a commotion. Such humor like that is rampant in Le Divorce, where the Americans and French are continually analyzing each other. But it’s all very subtle and with a touch of dry humor. The French obsession with The Simpsons, the fashion statement of scarves, the emphasis on fine cuisine (especially, cheese), and the attitudes toward sexual promiscuity and business acumen – all are notable differences and perspectives that highlight the true joys of international cinema, an arena in which we can learn about other cultures, traditions, and customs.

The film benefits from the charisma of Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, along with most of their American, British, and French co-stars. While Hudson is off playing her usual romantic comedy self, Watts is agonizing in perfectly dramatic fashion -- but does anybody seem to notice or care? Lhermitte is suave and well-refined as the unfaithful dallier, and the film showcases splendid performances by Stockard Channing as the tough American mom; Glenn Close, as the sophisticated and knowledgeable ex-flame; and my favorite, Stephen Fry, as the British representative from Christie’s, who is bubbly and quick to point out even the slightest French flaw. Le Divorce does not have the "je ne sais quois" to make it a rewarding movie, but it is entertaining -- a light, festive movie with subtle humor and nuances. If you like the actresses involved and have been or are thinking of going to France or Europe, you might experience the film as a fun-filled travelogue -- from the streets of downtown Paris to the French countryside to the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps you’ll even pick up a French phrase or two along the way.

©2003 Mark Sells