Monday, March 16, 2009


David Fincher has fashioned some first-rate films since he started directing movies back in 1992. The Colorado native called the shots on “Se7en” (1995), a gripping serial killer saga starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as the cops and Kevin Stacey as the villain, that disturbed as much as it enthralled audiences. He toyed mischievously with audiences in “The Game” (1997) toplining Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in the tradition of George Roy Hill’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “The Sting.” The incomparable and offbeat “Fight Club” (1999) qualified hands down as Fincher’s finest, reuniting him with Brad Pitt and co-starring Edward Norton in a pre-terrorist 9/11 opus. Until he made the Jodie Foster crime film “Panic Room” (*1/2 out of ****), “Alien 3” ranked as Fincher’s least distinguished epic, with a shaven-headed Sigourney Weaver impersonating science officer Ripley for the last time as a flesh & blood human being. Comparatively, as the least commercial entry in the creature-feature franchise, the anemic “Alien 3” induced sleep rather than suspense. No matter how atrocious “Alien 3” seemed, “Panic Room” weighs in as infinitely worse. Only deep-fried Jodie Foster fans will savor this superficial, occasionally sadistic exercise in futility. Actually, the producers cast Nicole Kidman, but she injured herself and pulled out. A hopelessly miscast Jodie Foster brings a certain elegance to this unexceptional nail-biter. Indeed, lensers Conrad Hall and Darius Khondji’s atmospheric cinematography, the eerie lighting, and the looming interiors win “Panic Room” brownie points, not nearly enough.

This inferior feminist fable takes its title from a 12 by 12 foot, steel-plated, concrete bunker inside a four-story Brownstone in Upper West Side Manhattan. The reclusive tycoon who owned it has died, and our divorced heroine, Meg Altman (a bespectacled Jodie Foster) and her diabetic daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart of “Twilight”) now occupy the place. Plagued by paranoia, the late millionaire equipped the townhouse with a secret room. This impregnable bomb shelter boasts a high tech surveillance system with a cameras that scan the premises 24 hours a day from every angle inside and outside. The chamber contains its own ventilation system and features a separate telephone line. During the first night that Meg and Sarah sleep in their new beds, they awaken to find themselves at the mercy of three harebrained hoodlums out to steal millions of dollars worth of bearer bonds that the dead financier concealed in a vault in the safe room.

Predictably, Meg and Sarah hole up in the bunker while Junior (Jared Leto of “Girl, Interrupted”), Burnham (Forrest Whitaker of “Bird”), and Raoul (country singer Dwight Yoakam of “Sling Blade”) toil incompetently to evict them. Aside from their vulnerability as females-at-risk with flaws—Meg suffers from claustrophobia, while Sarah requires insulin shots)—these females do little to appeal to our sympathy. Ironically, Whitaker’s character emerges as not only the most sympathetic but also the most interesting. Poor Patrick Bauchau of “A View to a Kill” plays Meg’s millionaire, ex-husband (no relation to the deceased tycoon) and takes a hellacious beating from Raoul in a scene which will undoubtedly sicken some viewers.

This tedious, third-rate tale unravels from the outset with a premise as contrived as it convoluted plot. What veteran scenarist David Koepp of “Stir of Echoes” fame doesn’t steal from his own scripts, he appropriates from the durable Audrey Hepburn thriller “Wait Until Dark” (1967) and the exciting Sean Connery caper “The Anderson Tapes” (1972). The Raoul character clearly recalls the Mafia thug in “Anderson Tapes” that veteran character actor Val Avery played in a ski-mask with a penchant for violence. The ending that disposes of the bearer bonds comes straight out of John Huston’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). Had the “Panic Room” been a tenth as entertaining as any of those classics, this derivative mishmash with its unintentionally hilarious histrionics might have proven tolerable. Instead, “Panic Room” resembles a heavy-handed Lifetime channel version of “Home Alone.” Decked out in a black, tank-top to display cleavage, Jodie Foster imitates the antics of Macaulay Culkin as she battles a trio of bungling burglars. These clueless cretins make the Three Stooges appear like intellectual titans. Foster is a top-flight actress who shouldn’t have stooped to this one-dimensional nonsense. Koepp’s script bristles with inconsistencies. After making a big deal about Meg’s claustrophobia early in the film, Fincher and Koepp unaccountably drop it from the plot when they tighten the screws on our protagonists. The scene with the butane gas tank elicits derision more than dread, and the flashlight batteries in another scene were clearly of the Eveready variety.

Don’t get trapped in the “Panic Room.”