Reviews of 'The Panic Room' and 'The Rookie'

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"It's too dark," complains the plucky young girl to her mom at the outset of David Fincher's new, white-knuckle thriller Panic Room. The youngster is bummed by the dimly lit bedroom she's been assigned in their spacious new Manhattan townhouse, but she might just as well be commenting on the fundamental approach of Fincher's movie — both the actual level of physical light on display (or not) as well as the murky metaphysical tone of the whole damn thing.

Over the course of four films — Alien 3, Seven, The Game and Fight Club — Fincher has cast himself as a modern master of paranoia, and Panic Room is, if nothing else, the culmination of that trend. The film is modern riff on such classic home-invasion exploitation films as Wait Until Dark and Lady in a Cage. Fincher tones down the sadism a touch (at least until the last act), introduces some high-tech elements and gives the whole thing an unmistakable sheen of artsy class, but the basic narrative is both familiar and lurid, and appeals to our worst fears: a stranger breaking into the house.

Almost immediately upon moving into their new home, a newly divorced mother (Jodie Foster) and her young daughter (Kristen Stewart) awaken to discover armed intruders lurking just outside their bedroom doors. The besieged duo retreats to their panic room — a supposedly impenetrable chamber hidden away in the house — and a series of nasty cat-and-mouse games begin between hunters and hunted.

That's pretty much it. Panic Room is Fincher's most minimalist effort yet (even more so than The Game), and his most aggressively constricted: He shoots virtually the entire film within the single apartment set (and about a third of that footage takes place within the cramped space of the panic room itself).

Foster turns in another finely nuanced performance as the imperiled heroine, as does Forest Whitaker, he of the famously droopy eye, as the intruder with a conscience. The movie's real surprise, though, is Dwight Yoakam, who accomplishes the considerable feat of exuding all sorts of serious menace while spending the lion's share of the movie with his face almost completely concealed by a ski mask.

In its own light-deprived way, Panic Room looks every bit as good as you'd expect from a project photographed by both Conrad Hall (American Beauty) and the great Darius Khondji (Before the Rain and Fincher's own Seven). The movie's rigorous but unfussy visual style plays right into our steadily increasing sense of unease, continually narrowing our field of vision as our only view of the outside world becomes the constant stream of rain (shades of Seven) falling just outside the windows of Foster's home.

Meanwhile, the camera sustains our interest (and the film's narrative) by performing a variety of discreet but neat tricks that includes zooming into keyholes, passing through walls and any number of other moves seemingly oblivious to gravity and the laws of physics. Howard Shore's subtly discordant score is a near-perfect complement to the imagery, milking every conceivable ounce of mood from this already mood-heavy piece.

As in all of Fincher's films, there are some brilliantly choreographed and edited action sequences here, but, for the most part, the movie is a textbook example of less is more. We could only wonder where Fincher might go next after the enormous ambitions of Fight Club, a film whose final images seemed to all but foretell 9/11. A lesser director (or a more truly paranoid one) might have even been paralyzed by the thought that the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center had seen Fincher's film and taken a cue from those final horrible-beautiful images of an urban skyline collapsing with a synchronized perfection worthy of Busby Berkeley.

In light of all that, perhaps Panic Room is Fincher's way of suggesting that, while his movies continue to maintain that safety does not exist, there may just occasionally be something we can do about it.

Local Boy Makes Good

An inspirational sports movie with a local hook, The Rookie is a slight but absolutely sincere sort of tall tale that also happens to be true.

The movie revels in its believe-it-or-not status, opening by teasing us with a tall tale within the tall tale: a legend about a group of desert-dwelling nuns who offer up a prayer to the patron saint of impossible dreams. The nuns get what they ask for, in spades, and so does just about everyone else in The Rookie, a G-rated Disney effort that's as much about the getting of impossible dreams as the studio's once and former champ in that department, Pinocchio.

The local hook in the story of The Rookie is that the film's hero, Jimmy Morris (played by that master of good ol' boy, aw-shucks heroism, Dennis Quaid), makes good on his childhood dream and, at the relatively advanced age of thirtysomething, finds himself playing Major League baseball for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The movie's later sections include a smattering of footage that may or not have been shot in or around Florida (although, frankly, most of these scenes take place in massive stadiums that, from this reviewer's sports-challenged perspective, all tend to look pretty much the same).

There are at least two stories, maybe two-and-a-half, going on in The Rookie, and the film doesn't devote quite enough time to any of them. Nor does it segue with particular grace from one story to the next. The movie opens with a snippet of little Jimmy Morris' early days as a military brat, shuttled off from one town to the next while trying to pursue his dream of playing baseball. Twenty minutes later, little Jimmy morphs into Dennis Quaid, now the father of three and a high school baseball coach trying to transform a team of losers into champs. The movie's third and final story has to do with Jimmy's own efforts to play in the major leagues with kids almost 20 years younger.

The Rookie is filled with handsome production values and serviceable performances (although Quaid's Texas accent comes and goes), but the movie just doesn't seem to trust its own basic elements. The film force-feeds our emotions with slabs of dripping string music, exaggerated (and unearned) moments of wide-eyed, Spielbergian wonder and the sun-dappled instant nostalgia of clean, uncluttered Main Streets and charming toothless locals.

It's all quite sincere and uplifting but not terribly interesting or authentic. So much so that when Morris' tough-but-fair father shows up, played by Brian Cox — last seen diddling little boys in the remarkable indie L.I.E. — it's difficult to get that infinitely better film out of our minds, and almost impossible to divorce the image of the ped

ophile from the one of the tough-love dad.

Panic RoomDirected by David Fincher

Stars Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker,

Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto and Kristen Stewart

Opens March 29 at local theaters

The RookieDirected by John Lee Hancock

Stars Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths,

Brian Cox and Beth Grant

Opens March 29 at local theaters

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