a/ka/ "Winged Creatures"

  2.5 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

A man with a grudge and a fully-loaded gun steps into a small town diner, squeezes the trigger and starts dealing death. As the bullets fly a waitress, Carla Davenport (Kate Beckinsale), ducks behind a counter; Charlie Archenault, a driving instructor already facing death (Forest Whitaker), sits stock still as the shooter passes; and two teens, Anne Hagen and Jimmy Jasperson (Dakota Fanning, Josh Hutcherson), are pushed under the table by Anne's father. Moments later, Charlie is lying face down in his own blood, Anne's father is dead, and the shooter has taken his own life. How each of the surviving characters reacts to the tragedy makes up the tapestry of "Fragments," a multi-layered drama with more plots than a puzzle has pieces. The actors who aren't on auto pilot give this derivative small town version of "Crash" a boost.

Shot in the neck, Charlie miraculously skirts death. ("You are some kind of lucky," the ER attendant says. "Real lucky.") Charlie believes his second life is a positive sign and heads to a casino to cash in: "What the hell... It's tragic to waste this kind of magic." Carla develops an unhealthy obsession with the emergency room doctor, Bruce Laraby (Guy Pearce). It's particularly unhealthy for her baby. She neglects to feed him in order to have a reason to take him to Laraby.

Dr. Laraby has his own post-incident guilt to deal with. He remembers grabbing a coffee to go at the diner, smiling at Carla, then holding the door open for the shooter on his way out. The shooter thanked him. He lost Anne's dad on the operating table:

Dr. Laraby: On the way out I held the door for the guy who killed everybody.
Jan Laraby (his wife): How do you know it was him?
Dr. Laraby: Because twenty minutes later they wheeled everybody in and he had a big fu**ing hole in his head.
Soon after, Laraby is too late to save an elderly patient he'd befriended. Doctors are supposed to be able to help their patients, not bury them, so Laraby purposely begins poisoning his wife, Jan, in order to play God by saving her.

Jimmy is one of the few witnesses who reacts the way you might expect a young impressionable boy to respond - he refuses to talk. Josh Hutcherson, a career as a mime awaits you...Anne overcompensates in dealing with the trauma of the shooting, finding God. Dakota Fanning, please report to Acting 101.

Fortunately, writer Roy Freirich and director Rowan Woods have assembled a first rate cast to try and turn "Fragments" into something solid. Okay, maybe it's too early in Dakota Fanning's young career to say she can't act; but she was an interplanetary scream machine in the remake of "War of the Worlds" and she can't put the pieces together here either, overacting with steadfast determination. At some point she must've wowed someone to justify getting so many other starring roles, but we are not impressed. Putting one of the film's pivotal plots in the hands of a child actor is dicey enough; insisting she act like a born again Billy Graham is asking too much. Instead of spouting verses from the good book, helping the needy, or parting the Red Sea, all Fanning's Anne ever does to display her sudden obsession with God is ask people to drop to their knees and pray with her. And people do so because they think she's cracked or traumatized, not because she's particularly convincing. With her dull tone and unblinking child zombie stare, Dakota might as well be asking the other actors to drop down and give her ten. Yes, the death of Anne's dad triggered her religious revelation, but why is she so determined to convert everyone else? Fanning's faltering face time in the film is a result of her inability to give life to her character's sudden catharsis. Whether Anne's sudden devotion to God is real or not - Fanning is so wooden you'll be surprised the birds she's so preoccupied with don't try to nest in her hair.

The ubiquitous Forest Whitaker craps out in trying to convey Charlie as a habitual gambler with terminal cancer on a hot streak. When his character was created Freirich forgot to give Charlie a moral center or a reason for the audience to care about him. He won't call his doting daughter, fails to cover a loan from a less than benevolent benefactor, and can't hold his liquor. I'd like to give him a pass as far as being on deck for the grim reaper, but don't characters facing death in films travel the high road instead of taking another pass at the dice?

Another actor who's everywhere these days, Jackie Earle Haley, (fascinating as the pessimistic Rorschach in the sci-fi extravaganza "Watchmen"...See this month's review), gives another star making perf as Jimmy's hard-as-nails dad, Bob. Growing up, I think everybody knew somebody who had a hard-drinking dad who was a scary anti-government right winger. Say hello to your childhood nightmare. With his bushy caterpillar moustache and 50's D.A., Haley looks and acts as cantankerous as Doc Holiday in a high stakes game trying to bluff with a pair of deuces. His snarling vendetta against the insurance companies who screwed up his first son drives his nasty nature. I've never seen Haley give a bad performance. No matter how potentially rote the role is, he adds something that tweaks your interest. As Bob's more compassionate mate, Robin Weigert (cussin' Calamity Jane in "Deadwood") doesn't let her role as a spare part keep her from leaving a compassionate impression; you'll feel for her because she has to live with such a grim brute. Kevin Durand (the indestructible Martin Keamy on "Lost") has a commanding cameo a lone shark's bagman with a heart - he gives Charlie cab fare before mutilating him.

Add Kate Beckinsale to the list of actresses who can immerse themselves in a character and give a clinic on Oscar worthy acting every time out. She takes a caricature, the trailer park trash waitress with the whining kid, and adds layers to Carla with a frantic look or a longing glance.

You may not completely understand Dr. Laraby's motive for repeatedly poisoning and rescuing his wife, but Guy Pearce knows how to handle the role of the kind hearted physician and attentive husband. Given his tireless devotion to the community, you'll want to see if he can overcome his guilt as well as Jekyll and Hyde tendencies.

As Charlie's daughter, Jennifer Hudson frets well, but she let's her down home accent get the best of her performance, mumbling in what sounds like Ebonics. Nice idea to go against the glamour puss image Jen, but without make up and dressed in dowdy clothes, Hudson looks a little too bovine, okay a lot. Jeanne Tripplehorn ("Big Love") occasionally chimes in as Anne's concerned mom, Doris, but she's so insignificant she might as well be "I Dream of Jeannie."

"Fragments" is a direct to DVD release, which usually isn't a good sign. It's also undergone a name change from Freirich's original title, "Winged Creatures," a reference, I'm guessing, to Anne's fascination with birds. After viewing the film, the producers probably scratched their heads, then decided to switch to the more appropriate and descriptive title of "Fragments." The problem with "Fragments" is all the pieces in the plot don't fit together. There are enough frustrating holes and dead spots to make you think the gunman had the right idea. The flashbacks aren't all that informative; just more well intentioned fragments. When we're finally given the reason for Anne becoming God's cheerleader it turns out to be a frivolous matter of personal pride rather than a tribute to her father. It's hard to root for Charlie's goal of getting to his "walk away point"( $100,000) because he achieves it then runs back to the blackjack table as if his wallet is made of metal and the table was a magnet. Then he borrows twenty grand more! Bet with your head Charlie, not over it. You know Dr. Laraby is going to live to regret playing God with his wife (ah, but will she live to regret it). Carla's solution to her infatuation with Doc Laraby is to simply to switch obsessions. Too bad her wailing kid can't switch moms. The solutions to some of the other characters' problems only raise more red flags, and it's hard to care for small town simpletons who regress rather than grow as a result of what they've been through. I'll recommend "Fragments" for Haley, Beckinsale, and Pearce's performances, but there's only one "Crash," and this isn't it.  

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