'10 Items Or Less': Star Time, By Kurt Loder

The great Morgan Freeman shows us how it's done (again). Also: The gore bore 'Turistas.'

"10 Items or Less" is a movie that makes you want to run out into the street and start buttonholing pedestrians: "You've gotta see this picture. It's a low-budget indie about two people who go to quirky little places and mainly just talk. It's brilliant. No, really."

Really. The film was produced for pocket change by that superb actor, Morgan Freeman, and the director Brad Silberling, who knocked out the script before starting his last feature, the sadly underrated "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." Freeman stars as an actor (we're never told his name — he might just be Freeman himself) who's become such a big star making assembly-line action-adventure blockbusters that he's now adrift in a professional welter of agents, contracts and career moves, and has lost touch with his original motivation for becoming an actor in the first place. So he's decided to take a flyer on a little independent movie, in which he'd play the manager of a suburban mini-market. He's not sure about committing to this project ("The director's so young he hasn't even been born yet"), but he probably will. "If it flies, fine," he says. "If it doesn't, it won't even count."

As a total pro, he's decided to do some tentative character research, so he has his driver drop him off at a real mini-market out in the middle of nowhere — well, Carson, California, south of L.A. There's not much going on: a few people shuffling around shopping for cheap sandals, loose fruit, Cheerios. Then his actor's eye is drawn to a grumbly young woman named Scarlet (Paz Vega), who's running the cash register in the "10 Items or Less" line. Scarlet has to do all the work in this place, because everybody with 11 items or more keeps trying to sneak into her line, requiring a constant, wearying outlay of steely glares and shriveling sarcasm — it's exhausting. Meanwhile, the other cash-register girl in the store, working the all-you-can-buy line, sits on her butt all day doing nothing. Even more annoying, she's also sleeping with the store's manager (Bobby Cannavale), who happens to be Scarlet's no-good husband (or ex-husband, as soon as she can afford to divorce him).

When the visiting actor (let's just call him Freeman) can't reach his driver to come take him back to L.A., Scarlet reluctantly agrees to give him a lift. She has to make a couple of stops, though — one of them to interview for a new job as a secretary at a construction business. ("I've never had a job where I can sit down," she says.) Scarlet is fed up with her life — it feels like it's over, and she's only 25 years old. But Freeman sees great potential for happiness in her. "I know people," he says. "I mean, the minute I see somebody, I know how to cast 'em."

So what do these two do? Oh, this and that. Scarlet has a rip in her blouse, so they go to a nearby cut-price clothes store to find a replacement. Freeman — who normally gets all his duds from movie-set wardrobe departments, and hasn't "shopped retail" in years — is amazed by the purported bargains. "Look at these prices!" he says. "How can they afford to do this? Designer T-shirts — eight dollars?" Then he decides that her beat-up car needs a pre-interview wash-and-wax ("a wardrobe change," he calls it). They hit an Arby's for some protein. They drive around; they chat and banter. Freeman gets Scarlet to try talking in a fake British accent ("clears the linguistic palate," he says), and she goes along, blossoming as she begins to see herself in the hopeful way that he does. Then they play a game: Name the things you love and the things you hate — 10 items or less. Scarlet hates her feet and her marriage. She loves music and her nephew and "the tree behind my house." Freeman loves his wife, his kids, "no extra takes, the written word and strong endings."

It's hard to convey how completely charming this off-the-cuff, 82-minute movie is. Morgan Freeman, who is 69 years old and has possibly never given a poor performance, is at full-glow here. His character bonds with people wherever he goes — the wipe-down guys at the car wash (he grabs a rag and joins in), two giggling women cruising the dress racks at the clothes store ("You might want to shorten the waist just a little," he says, with a flirty chuckle). He's too interested in other people to be bothered with his own puny career problems, and you can see why everyone's drawn to him — he's a rare bird; who wouldn't be?

The radiant Spanish actress Paz Vega, meanwhile — last seen opposite Adam Sandler in the 2004 film "Spanglish" — is Freeman's perfect foil. She can convey recognizable human emotional detail with only a tilt of her head or a sweet, skeptical glance, and she knows just how much spin to give the script's many sparklingly funny lines. ("10 Items or Less" is only her second English-language picture.) Holding your own onscreen with a star of Freeman's caliber is no middling accomplishment, and Vega does it with feisty comic style. She's a star herself, and this picture — however many people wind up seeing it — is the proof.

"Turistas": Stranded in the Jungle

Let's see: Group of hot/hunky vacationing youths stranded in hostile foreign parts? Check. Group members drugged and robbed of money, passports, clothes, leaving girls with nothing to wear but their bikinis? Check. Mysterious local offers to take marooned youths to "the house of my uncle" — which turns out to be way deep in the jungle? Do I hear a "check"?

Yes, you've seen this movie before. Which needn't have meant it couldn't be any good. It might have been a gratifying genre exercise, watching the clueless youths getting picked off one at a time in increasingly disgusting ways. But no. "Turistas" is in fact not very good. Which isn't to say it's total dreck. Director John Stockwell ("Blue Crush") spent a lot of time trekking through the Brazilian jungle to shoot it; and there are some pretty underwater sequences (mainly of the bikini girls paddling enjoyably past the camera). But underwater scenes almost always slow the main story way down, and "Turistas" eventually succumbs to the one unforgivable sin in a horror movie: It's dull.

Josh Duhamel ("Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!") is the leader of the pack of three guys and three girls. The menace he faces is a wacko doctor who traffics in human organs obtained from non-volunteer donors. Unfortunately, the disgusting stuff isn't new — a stick rammed into an eyeball, a rock slammed down on a guy's head. And the big set-piece scene in a jungle operating room, where a still-conscious girl has her chest (topless, of course) flayed open and her kidneys removed right before her eyes, is lifted pretty much straight out of an old grindhouse flick by gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis.

There's also too much running around in the dark, rainy jungle — it's difficult to tell who's doing what to whom, and very soon it's even more difficult to care. Which is actually the problem with the whole picture.

Check out everything we've got on "10 Items or Less" and "Turistas."

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