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Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Horror's Two Biggest Guns Throw Down in this Summer's Most Pleasant Surprise
With "Freddy Vs. Jason", director Ronny Yu has done what many before him have tried and failed. No, I don't mean resurrecting supernatural psycho killers Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. As we all know, it takes nothing more intricate than a well-placed lightning bolt or ill-timed nightmare to accomplish that. What Yu and his screenwriters, Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, have done here is much more complex and exciting: they've raised the horror hackers' respective franchises from the grave. Freddy's "Nightmare on Elm Street" series has been dormant since "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" way back in 1994, and "Friday the 13th" slasher Jason has appeared in only one film since '93, last year's poorly received sci-fi one-off "Jason X". Now, with "Freddy Vs. Jason", the gloved fiend and the goalie-masked monster have regained their box-office mojo, if last weekend's $36.4 million bow is any indication. Even more thrilling, Yu, Shannon and Swift have injected new creative blood into the series, providing the film with some traits often missing from both franchises, namely a great story, top-notch performances, stylistic flair, and good, old-fashioned thrilling fun.
"Freddy Vs. Jason" opens with big bad Freddy trapped in hell, unable to use the nightmares of Elm Street's teenagers as an outlet for mayhem and murder. Having caught on to the source of Freddy's power, the parents of the town of Springwood have secretly drugged their kids with a powerful experimental dream suppressant, robbing them of their ability to dream and keeping Freddy well in check. To unleash the teens' nightmares again, Freddy needs to reintroduce them to the notion of fear, but trapped as he is, he needs help. In other words, he needs Jason Voorhees, the indestructible hockey-masked killing machine who Freddy raises from the dead and sends on a door-to-door death dealing mission on Elm Street. Fear rises and Freddy's powers grow, but now the razor-fingered phantom has two big obstacles to overcome. First of all, the new kids of Elm Street are not going down without a fight. Second, neither is Jason...and as you may know, the big silent killer is harder to take out than a New York cockroach. It's a monstro a monstro fight to the finish...and only one fiend can walk away undead.
New Line Cinema, who originated the "Elm Street" films and recently bought the "Friday the 13th" franchise from Paramount, worked for nearly a decade on a script that would pay proper respect to the continuity of both series while still providing a suitably exciting backdrop for a Krueger-Voorhees showdown. It was worth the wait; Shannon and Swift's clever screenplay provides a perfect means for Freddy and Jason to find themselves facing off, and it does so without violating the mythology of either franchise. What's more, unlike many of the series' previous films, "Freddy Vs. Jason" is far more than a relentless series of graphic killings interrupted by witless, perfunctory plot-delineating dialogue. Shannon and Swift stud the script with sharp dialogue, beautifully exploit the origin stories of both Freddy and Jason, and actually manage to give us teen characters who are more than pretty cannon fodder for the two maniacs-in-chief. "Freddy Vs. Jason" is one of the rare horror pictures where you may actually find yourself rooting for the kids over the killers.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the film stints on the imaginative bloodletting. Brutally exciting moments abound, from an arrogant young stud finding out the hard way that his bed's not adjustable to a nosejob-hungry PYT who gruesomely learns what she'd look like with no nose at all. Yu, a Hong Kong cult favorite who broke into the U.S. horror market with "Child's Play" revival "Bride of Chucky", stages the film's killings with maximum kinetic inventiveness, and he also keeps the tension and excitement high as the story builds to the inevitable showdown between the demonic duo. The pacing is fast and furious, the storytelling is clear and unstintingly visual, and the action enhances the story rather than overwhelming it utterly.
Yu is given ample support in realizing his vision by the work of a top-notch technical crew who turn "Freddy Vs. Jason" into the most visually impressive film in either series. Cinematographer Fred Murphy provides a vibrant contrast of garish colors and deep, foggy shadow, cloaking the film in suitably foreboding haunted-house atmosphere. Mark Stevens' editing brutally punches home every last spatter of blood, and all that red stuff, plus assorted eviscerated bodies and severed appendages, are ably supplied by makeup supervisors Rebeccah Delchambre and Patricia Murray-Morgan. Even the music is top-grade; stalwart composer Graeme Revell provides a thumping orchestral accompaniment, with a dash of "Nightmare"'s plaintive piano theme and "Friday the 13th"'s chee-chee-hah-hah vocal effects, and the song score is chock-full of grinding hard-core rock, most notably "When Darkness Falls", a doom-laden dirge by Killswitch Engage that closes the film.
Unlike so many other horror-film directors, Yu pays as much attention to his victims as to his killers, and the result is some of the most engaging horror-film acting in quite a while. Ravishing Monica Keena is surprisingly affecting as Lori, the troubled young lady who is Freddy's prime target. Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child displays an enjoyably biting humor as Lori's appearance-obsessed friend Kia, and Jason Ritter, as Lori's one-time true love, shows an easy command of the good-guy role. Kyle Labine provides able comic relief as the Jay-like stoner Freeburg (who has a hilarious encounter with an "Alice In Wonderland"-style Freddy caterpillar with a fatally alluring hookah), and Christopher George Marquette transcends his nerd-cliche character with a surprisingly sincere performance.
Still, as unexpectedly interesting as these guys turn out to be, Yu knows why we're here, and he never fails to make it clear that this is Freddy and Jason's show all the way. Robert Englund is of course back as the sweatered, razor-gloved Krueger, and he's in top-class form, leaning heavily on Freddy's more sinister "New Nightmare" persona while still cracking off a few vintage one-liners, mostly at Jason's expense. The now 54-year-old Englund is still able to exude a palpable sense of danger and physical menace that's as enjoyable as the laughs he wrings out of Freddy's sometimes eye-rollingly corny jokes (sizing up Kia, he comments, "How sweet...DARK meat!"). And Ken Kirzinger, a controversial replacement for four-time Jason Kane Hodder, more than holds his own against Englund, making Jason as physically imposing and murderously forceful as he's ever been, most notably in a dynamite scene in which Jason slashes his way through a rave in a cornfield, taking out one blood-spurting victim after another. Jason, in my opinion, has never been scarier on screen; New Line should sign Yu and Kirzinger to do the next "Friday the 13th" picture without delay.
Of course, even with all this great material, it's just the framework for the film's main event, a two-part smackdown between the titans of terror, and Yu does not disappoint. Battling first in Freddy's boiler-room dreamscape, then through the woods of Jason's Crystal Lake killing ground, the two fiends unleash every weapon in their formidable arsenals in a protracted, insanely bloody duel that includes top-of-the-line effects and stunt work, wince-inducing moments of violence, and literal buckets of blood and flying gore. It's a high benchmark for each series, and one of the greatest horror-monster showdowns of all time. King Kong Vs. Godzilla has nothing on these guys.
Lest the high grosses trick you into thinking that Freddy and Jason have toned down their acts for a kinder, gentler audience appeal, let me assure you that it's business as usual in "Freddy Vs. Jason". The violence is gory and graphic, there's several scenes of gratuitous sex and nudity, and the humor is as dark and politically incorrect as ever (Kia even makes a homophobic crack about Freddy's sweater). Still, these disreputable qualities are not only forgivable, but welcome as essential ingredients in the mix, and if you're offended, you really shouldn't have come to this party anyway.
In a summer of disappointing blockbusters and unnecessary part twos and threes, "Freddy Vs. Jason" is an unexpected treat, the best sequel so far this year and one of the summer's most purely entertaining pictures (I would rank only "Pirates of the Caribbean" ahead of it in terms of sheer enjoyment). Bloody, funny, endlessly exciting, this is the rare horror film that delivers, and then some. Hats off to Ronny Yu, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, and the entire cast and crew for teaching two old demons so many exciting new tricks. And I end with one simple word, a word certain to be echoed by horror buffs around the country...
A Mighty Wind (2003)
In what has, not atypically, been a dismal year thus far for films, Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" stands out like a rose in a trash pile. Another of Guest's "Spinal Tap"-style pseudodocumentaries, this film, about a reunion of once-popular folk musicians for a special concert, is funnier than the previous dog-show mock-doc "Best In Show", but is also surprisingly heartfelt, building a gentle feeling of good cheer that stays with you long after the final song fades out.
Folk impresario Irving Steinbloom is dead, and his emotionally stunted son Jonathan (an slightly Woody Allenesque Bob Balaban) has planned a grand memorial for him: a concert broadcast on public TV live from New York's immortal Town Hall. He pulls together some of the most beloved acts of the mid-sixties folk heyday, including the old-fashioned Folksmen and the homogenized, creepily cultlike New Main Street Singers. But there's a wild card in the mix, and his name is Mitch (Eugene Levy). Formerly one half of the beloved romantic singing duo Mitch and Mickey, the singer / guitarist suffered a mental collapse after an mid-performance kiss with Mickey (Catherine O'Hara) on a TV show came to nothing, and has to be coaxed into doing the concert like a yogi being soothed into walking on hot coals. Now a zonked-out shell of a man with a weirdly clipped way of speech and nervous, dizzy eyes, Mitch finally agrees to take the stage with Mickey...but will the kiss that captivated America be repeated?
A concert in honor of a dead man, emotional anguish, a yearning for a furtive kiss...doesn't sound like laff riot material, does it? But Guest and his hugely talented cast pull it off. Virtually all the actors from "Best In Show" are here; the company, in addition to those named above, includes Michael Hitchcock, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Paul Dooley, Jennifer Coolidge, and Guest himself as a banjo-playing wiggly-voiced Folksman. This is the director's third film with this talented repertory, and the actors, largely improvising from a scenario created by Guest and Levy, throw themselves into the material with gusto, creating characters who provoke effortless laughs and left me with a giddy smile on my face through the whole film. Knowing that the most effective comedy, no matter how outrageous the laughs, often proceeds from a firm bedrock in reality, these performers wisely do not push their admittedly caricatured creations into cartoon territory, keeping them just grounded enough so we can laugh in recognition at the bizarre vicissitudes of human nature as much as in disbelief at their silliness.
Naturally, with such an enormous cast, there are bound to be a few standouts. Willard, whose dimwitted dog-show announcer was the comic highlight of "Best In Show", steals scenes as the New Main Street Singers' boorish manager, former star of an obnoxious sitcom called "Wha' Happened?" (canceled due to "total lack of interest", according to "Variety"). Begley is amusing as a Swedish TV producer with a penchant for Yiddish phrases, and Hitchcock has some fine verbal duels with Balaban as the Town Hall rep putting the concert together. All these performers score laughs, but Coolidge, as a feather-brained PR agent, delivers an offhand remark about model trains that had me worried I'd lose the rest of the scene's dialogue under all the laughter in the theatre (some of it admittedly mine).
Still, it's Levy's performance as Mitch that will stay with me the longest, as the actor, in the midst of a career renaissance, turns in a characterization that's almost Chaplinesque in its deft combination of humor and pathos. Mitch is a man whose unrequited love for his former musical partner has broken his brain, and it's honestly touching to see the poor man wandering the streets in lovelorn confusion, sitting in his drab hotel room as he listens to the enthusiastic sex of the people in the next room, and wistfully recalling the story of how he and Mickey first met. O'Hara matches him with her own frustration at his daffy lovesickness, but when the two of them get onstage to sing at the end of the long concert sequence that concludes the film, I was amazed to find that I was just as anxious as the film's characters about whether or not that famous kiss was going to happen again.
Guest is by now an old hand with this documentary-style storytelling, and he thankfully does not cram the form down our throats with scripted narration or a constantly darting handheld camera. There are a few nicely recreated period-era stills and some great old pastiche TV footage (I especially liked the chintzy hearts-and-clouds set Mitch and Mickey performed on back in the sixties), but for the most part, Guest's most utilized documentary device is talking-head interviews, which would run the risk of bringing the film to a grinding halt if the dialogue within didn't contain some of the movie's biggest laughs. Fred Willard sitting at a desk talking in this film drew more solid laughs from me than all the slapstick gags in the amusing but problematic "Anger Management".
In a further testament to the talent of his cast, all the songs in "A Mighty Wind" have been written and performed by the actors themselves. Folk music fans will of course find the most to appreciate here, but even if the stuff makes your teeth grind, you'll likely find something here easy on your ears. Among the film's musical standouts are the New Main Street Singers' rendition of the hard-luck manifesto "Wanderin'", the Folksmen's jaunty "Old Joe's Place", and of course, Mitch and Mickey's signature tune, the really quite lovely "A Kiss At The End of the Rainbow". Honestly, most of the music here is more pleasant than funny, but the final line of the film's title song more than makes up for it.
Warner Bros. wisely chose to release "A Mighty Wind" at an off-time of year, before the loud FX onslaught of summer and the heavy hammering of the weighty Oscar-bait fall releases. Indeed, spring seems like a perfect time for such a light, sweet, touching film, and especially considering the drecky leftovers that often glut the theatres at this time of year, a truly enjoyable picture like "A Mighty Wind" is all the more welcome. No matter what the release date, though, this film is a real treat, a lot of laughs, a perfect date movie. At least I think it would be; I'd have to go back with a date to be sure. And I figure if Mitch and Mickey don't get her ready for that good-night kiss, nothing will.
Tuneful entertainment with a message
"Chicago" represents the latest salvo in a mini-revival of one of Hollywood's most venerated genres: the live-action musical. Since the end of the golden age of big-budget studio song and dance extravaganzas, musicals have appeared only at irregular intervals, and most have met with mixed critical response and equally indifferent gross figures (the most recent example: Alan Parker's box-office also-ran "Evita"). But the holiday-season success of the Coen brothers' music-filled Depression comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000) indicated a new song filling the Hollywood air, a notion confirmed last May with the release of "Moulin Rouge". Baz Luhrmann's phantasmagorical tale of 19th-century Parisian decadence, memorably scored with contemporary pop tunes, may not have set the summer box office on fire, but it was heaped with critical raves, won an enthusiastic cult following, and became the first musical in decades to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
"Chicago", the feature-film debut of veteran stage director / choreographer Rob Marshall, is not as radical or experimental as Luhrmann's picture. Like "Evita", it is a cinematic adaptation of a hit Broadway show, namely Bob Fosse's tale of two 1920s murderesses who milk their crimes for headline-grabbing glory. And, like Parker's film, it doesn't attempt to re-invent the musical; it's content to be a solid, well-crafted genre product that knows what audiences expect from a musical and delivers in spades.
Indeed, the story (adapted from the original musical by "Gods and Monsters" scribe Bill Condon) is the most radical thing here, following as it does the exhilarating up-and-down fame rollercoaster of two cold-blooded killers. Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is a wannabe, a small-time song-and-dance girl who looks at the bright lights of the Chicago clubs and longs for her night in the spotlight. She gets it in a rather unexpected way after she kills her lover (Dominic West), a sleazy furniture salesman who'd filled her heads with lies about showbiz connections. Sent to prison, Roxie finds that the public's thirst for scandalous headlines has turned her into a celebrity, and the scared, confused young murderess transforms into a media monster, playing the people like an orchestra and turning her crime into an act of self-sacrifice. Roxie's rise to fame incurs the wrath of her one-time showbiz idol, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Louise-Brooks-bobbed former chorine who's doing time for killing her sister and philandering hubby...and who was the number-one star of Murderess Row until Roxie sauntered in. Caught between these two vixens is Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), Chi-town's biggest celebrity lawyer, who's representing them both...and who has a few "razzle-dazzle" tricks of his own up his sleeve.
As anyone who ever saw Bob Fosse's films ("Cabaret", "STAR80") can attest, the man had a cynical streak a mile wide, so it's not hard to see why the tawdry material of "Chicago" (based on a real 1920s murder case) was attractive to him. Condon, fortunately, does not file down the story's rough edges, and his script scores some trenchant observations on the curious nature of modern celebrity. Velma and Roxie are just like Lorena Bobbitt, Kato Kaelin, and all those other small-timers who, through one stupid action or simply by being in the wrong place at the right time, become famous beyond any right they actually have to achieve such heights. And who lets such undeserved accolades come their way? Us, of course. The film's howling chorus of reporters and courtroom gawkers eagerly sucking up the latest sensational story are the on-screen stand-ins for the audience, whose appetite for scandal and thrills has become so insatiable that the unremarkable are remarked upon, the unworthy celebrated, the evil elevated.
It's a deep message for what is essentially a song-and-dance comedy, but Condon allows himself to engage its darker implications without cramming "message" down our throats. We are, after all, mainly here to see the numbers, and Marshall's expertise with choreography and music makes sure the songs (composed by "Cabaret's" John Kander and Fred Ebb) pack a satisfying punch. "Roxie" is our little killer's exhilarating ode to her impending fame, complete with her name in big red lights. "Cell Block Tango" finds Velma and a gaggle of murderesses singing about how their victims all "had it comin'", complete with some admirably sleazy choreography. Marshall's imaginative staging of "We Both Reached For The Gun", a musical press conference, has Roxie as Billy's wooden ventriloquist's dummy and the reporters as marionettes under his control. And, of course, there's a knockout closing duet for Velma and Roxie, the biting, excitingly filmed "Nowadays". I've never seen "Chicago" onstage, but if this movie captures the energy of the show, it must be one showstopper after another.
Marshall's direction is not always as assured as his staging of the musical numbers. Oddly, the film almost feels like it was shot in sequence, as Marshall's initially choppy editing and scene-pacing grows progressively more seamless as the picture goes along. This is crucial, as the numbers all take place in a sort of fantasy nightclub cut off from the main action. Still, Marshall generally gets high marks for his debut, and he is ably abetted by a top-notch technical crew. In addition to the aforementioned editing (by Martin Walsh), strong work is put forward by costume designer Colleen Atwood (who nicely recreates the sometimes anachronistically revealing dance outfits of the stage show), cinematographer Dion Beebe, and the set design crew, led by production designer John Myrhe, who are able to make their squalor a little more authentic than what one would see on a stage.
Of course, as with any musical, the lion's share of the picture's success rests on the shoulders of its performers, and while Astaire and Garland aren't losing any sleep, "Chicago"'s cast members acquit themselves surprisingly well as song-and-dance artists. Gere, slick with oily charm, displays a witty way with a lyric and a nice relaxed tap-dance style. Zeta-Jones, a dancer in London before she hit the silver screen, shows off the flashiest moves of anyone here, all the while oozing fearsome sexuality. Also turning in fine work are Queen Latifah as the corrupt warden of the women's prison and John C. Reilly as Roxie's hapless cuckold of a husband, whose "Mr. Cellophane" poignantly sums up his nowhere-man status.
As far as I'm concerned, though, this is Renee Zellweger's show all the way. For me, Zellweger's onscreen work has been wildly uneven, ranging from the agreeable "Jerry Maguire" to "Me Myself & Irene", where she seemed stunned to find herself in front of a movie camera. Here, however, her confidence is exhilarating, and as Roxie transforms from a timid criminal to a vampish media super-vixen, Zellweger projects sex, sarcasm, and sweetness (often insincerely) like nothing I've seen from her before. Her dancing is not as polished as Zeta-Jones's, but she more than holds her own, and her numbers are easily the most memorable of the film. Roxie may not be a star, but Zellweger certainly is here; I'm rooting for her to take home a Best Actress Oscar for this.
"Chicago" is not quite the masterpiece some of the early reviews have suggested. The lack of a more experienced director keeps it from being more than a top-notch screen transfer of a venerated stage work. Nevertheless, the film is funny and exciting, with plenty of memorable numbers, and it proves for sure that the success of "Moulin Rouge" wasn't a fluke.
Now...how about that Sweeney Todd movie finally?
Ick! Yuck! Hooray!
It staggers the imagination that Peter Jackson, the man who co-wrote and directed last year's lavish, elegant "Lord of the Rings" is also the brains (and other internal organs) behind "Dead-Alive", one of the grisliest and most over-the-top horror films ever made. This film is everything "Rings" is not: nasty, gratuitously violent, cheap, sleazy, disreputable...and also funny, fast-paced, clever and entertaining in ways the well-made but rather ponderous "Rings" can't even come close to.
"Dead-Alive" is your standard boy-meets-girl-meets-Sumatran-rat-monkey picture. The boy is Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a bumbling but well-meaning New Zealand chappie; the girl is Paquita (Diana Penalver), a fetching Spanish grocery clerk whose crone of a grandmother prophecies a dire future with her fortune-telling cards. And the monkey...whoo, he's one nasty customer. One bite from this vicious little beast, and the victim is cursed to evolve into the living dead, forever feeding on the flesh of the living...and likewise creating new zombies to horrify the earth. Lionel finds this out the hard way when his harridan of a mother (Elizabeth Moody) gets chomped by the monster at a local zoo. Sure, Mum was always a witch, but now ears are falling into the custard, graves are throwing up their contents, and before long, the Cosgrove family manse is overrun with zombies, howling for blood...preferably Lionel and Paquita's.
This may just sound like standard "Night of the Living Dead" stuff, spiced up with a little "Dracula"-meets-"Island of Dr. Moreau" evil-animal hooey. And so it might have been, if Jackson and his crew don't take this raw material and turn it into an absolutely gonzo blood-splattered Grand Guignol rollercoaster ride. The film, which starts out normally enough (except for the gory prologue), goes loopy as soon as that rat monkey attacks Mum, and just keeps escalating further over the top for the remainder of its running time. Lionel buys zombie-pacifying tranquilizers from a poorly disguised expatriate Nazi; a ninja priest takes out a gang of punks, yelling "I kick ass for the Lord!"; two of the zombies decide to get it on, producing maybe the most hideous baby this side of "Eraserhead". Just when you think the screenplay (by Stephen Sinclair, Frances Walsh, and Jackson) has reached t he peak of lunacy, they hit you with another insane image or ridiculous moment, until by the time Lionel's taking out scores of ravenous zombies with a lawnmower, you're gagging and howling with laughter at the same time, caught up in the sheer grisly audacity of the enterprise. It's quite a triumph, really: Dario Argento meets Bob Clampett.
For what seems like it must have been a low-budget film, "Dead-Alive" boasts top-notch technical work. Murray Milne's cinematography is a study in the effectiveness of the distorting wide-angle lens, and Kevin Leonard-Jones' production design gives us a quirky '50s New Zealand, cute little streetcars and all, that's hilariously torn to shreds by flesh-eaters. Peter Dasent buoys the material along with an imaginative score, alternately bouncy and appropriately apocalyptic. And while all the actors do fine work here, the film's real stars are prosthetics designer Bob McCarron and creature / gore effects supervisor Richard Taylor. Their creations here are consistently inventive and quite frequently stomach churning. From the ghastly rat monkey that causes all the trouble (a stop-motion tribute to Ray Harryhausen) to the hideous torn-faced zombie army, from a murderous pile of intestinal goo to the floppy-breasted beast Mum Cosgrove transforms into, McCarron and Taylor's creatures are convincing, witty, and impressively realized, some of the most striking work I've seen along these lines in a long time.
Now that Jackson is the creative force behind a multiple-Oscar-nominated hit, "Dead-Alive" will likely be looked upon as a youthful transgression, a folly he needed to get out of his system in order to "mature" as an filmmaking artist. That doesn't, however, change the fact that "Dead-Alive" is a terrifically entertaining and creative picture, swift, gory and tremendous fun. Get all the hobbits and orcs you like; that rat monkey'll beat 'em every time.
Minority Report (2002)
It's not all it could be...but it's a lot
Many critics are hailing Steven Spielberg's new sci-fi thriller "Minority Report" as his best film in years, a return to action-escapist form for a filmmaker who has basically split the last decade between "Jurassic Park" films and more weighty historical dramas. The critical hyperbole is only half-warranted. "Minority Report" does not represent either a storytelling pinnacle or a visual breakthrough for the filmmaker, as many viewers and film pundits are claiming. However, it is still a swift, compelling entertainment with a lot more brains than most action pictures racketing around the multiplex these days.
It's 2054, and John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is chief officer of the Washington D.C. Department of PreCrime. This organization uses the psychic visions of three pre-cognitive humans (known as Pre-Cogs) to arrest murderers before they even have the chance to commit their crimes. Although the Pre-Cops have done such an effective job of reducing D.C.'s murder rate that the federal government is thinking of taking the program national, there is a lot of criticism of the department's work. Many feel that arresting criminals before they've become criminals is the same as convicting innocent people, and that the Pre-Cogs, who spend their whole lives floating in a nutrient tank hooked up to computer screens, have been reduced to dehumanized information conduits. Meanwhile, Anderton's got problems of his own. He's still haunted by memories of his son, who was kidnapped and likely murdered before PreCrime made such events a thing of the past, and he eases his pain with liberal doses of drugs. A Justice Department suit, Witwer (Colin Farrell) has begun sniffing around in Anderton's turf. Then, things really go ballistic when the Pre-Cogs predict that Anderton himself will kill a man he's never even met in 36 hours' time. Anderton goes on the run, along with Agatha (Samantha Morton), the most powerful of the Pre-Cogs who he's kidnapped to help him. He's got to prove he's innocent, but all the while, he might be moving ever closer to guilt.
Scott Frank and Jon Cohen's screenplay (adapted from a short story by "Blade Runner" scribe Phillip K. Dick) is more thought-provoking than your average action picture. In this current era of terrorist paranoia and ethnic profiling, this film dramatizes the potential dangers of branding individuals as criminals solely on intuition. There's a real metaphysical weight to the questions raised here. If the crime is stopped before it is committed, are those arrested really criminals? Is fate enough to go on in a criminal investigation? Does mankind really have the power to consciously change its future?
Still, "Minority Report" can be thoroughly enjoyed without thinking too deeply about these questions. Spielberg spices the picture with a number of exhilarating action sequences. There's a thrilling scene in which Anderton leaps between cars rocketing rapidly down a vertical stretch of highway, a beautifully staged battle with jet-pack cops, and a fight on an auto-plant conveyor belt that would have been more effective if I hadn't already seen basically the same scene a month ago in "Attack of the Clones" (Lucas and Spielberg are buddies, after all; it makes one wonder who ripped off whose scene). Though all of these scenes come off quite well, surprisingly, the film's pace eventually flags. Spielberg is normally a master of making a film move, but here there seems to be a lot of flab in the back half. There's no wholly unnecessary scenes here, but tighter editing would have made everything spank along much more urgently.
The film is anchored by sturdy performances. Tom Cruise is always at his best with obsessive, single-minded characters, and this role is no exception. The actor makes us truly ache for his lost son, and he acquits himself as an action hero more effectively than in the dispiriting "Mission: Impossible 2". Farrell's got a nice, no-nonsense tone here, and Morton, an Oscar nominee for "Sweet and Lowdown", again uses her marvelously expressive face and body to impressive effect. Also noteworthy in this cast are Tim Blake Nelson as a creepy wheelchair-bound prison warden, Peter Stormare as a truly disturbing back-alley eye doctor, and veteran thesp Max von Sydow as Cruise's Pre-Crime mentor.
"Minority Report" has been widely praised as one of Spielberg's most visually impressive films, and indeed, Spielberg's tech crew, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, costume designer Deborah L. Scott, production designer Alex McDowell, and countless f/x artists, create some truly astounding sights onscreen. In addition to the aforementioned vertical cars and jet packs, there's the menacing silver spider-robots that hunt Anderton through a slum-town building, a panorama of ever-shifting animated subway billboards that address potential consumers by name, and, perhaps most impressively, a mid-air computer matrix that allows the Pre-Cops to manipulate floating images like conductors shaping a symphony. Kaminski cloaks all these wonders in stark blues and grays, creating a vision of the future as endlessly encroaching night. It's all very stunning, but I just don't know if I'd call it a breakthrough. After all, doesn't this "innovative" film look an awful lot like "A.I.", Spielberg's summer 2001 sci-fi offering?
Still, I did not come to praise Spielberg and Co. with faint damns. While "Minority Report" is not a masterpiece, it's a skillfully made and intriguing picture that will please action buffs and thoughtful moviegoers alike. It's no "Jaws", but it's no "Lost World" either, and for that we can truly thank our lucky stars.
In the Bedroom (2001)
This is one that sneaks up on you **BEWARE SPOILERS**
"In The Bedroom" is one of those films that seems so unassuming that you don't really believe it when the hype starts to grow. I certainly didn't. Even after Todd Field's directorial debut received critical raves and Sissy Spacek started racking up critics' awards, I couldn't quite buy that what seemed like such an ORDINARY film could be as remarkable as people were claiming. On the one hand, there were the five Oscar nominations; on the other, my roommate, whose opinion I generally respect and who described the film as "sleep-inducing". Finally, realizing that this was the only Best Picture Oscar-nominated film that I had not seen, I decided to go see what the fuss was about.
I'm happy to report that in this case, the hype was right. "In The Bedroom" starts out slowly, then builds with remarkable intensity into a magnificent meditation on the fine line that separates justice from revenge, as well as the festering scars family members unconsciously inflict on one another, scars that remain invisible until tragedy brings them, raw and festering, to light.
The film takes place in small-town Maine, where Frank Fowler (Nick Stahl), an ambitious but impulsive young man, has embarked on an affair with an older woman (Marisa Tomei) with two children and a dangerous ex-husband, local son of privilege Richard Strout (William Mapother, who is, incidentally, Tom Cruise's brother). Frank's mother Ruth (Spacek) subtly disapproves of the relationship, but that's nothing new; the perfectionist music teacher has subtly disapproved of almost everything her only son has ever done. Frank's father Matt (Tom Wilkinson) is more tolerant of the affair. In some ways, he seems to get some vicarious pleasure out of seeing his son scoring the hottest catch in the neighborhood. Of course, this all remains unspoken, buried beneath a facade of family barbecues and fishing-boat excursions...until one day, Richard shoots and kills Frank in a scuffle. Ruth and Matt's grief, unarticulated, intense, soon builds to nearly paralyzing levels until they lash out at each other in nasty recrimination...which only makes them realize that the real source of their anger is not each other. It's Richard, who's still walking around. Unjustly alive.
But is it unjust? Field, working from a skillfully structured screenplay he co-wrote with Rob Festinger (based on Andre Dubus' short story "Killings"), turns this tale of domestic violence and tragedy into a pointed inquiry into the lengths to which people will sometimes go to satisfy their ideas of justice. It's not that Matt and Ruth want their son back; they're not helpless fantasists. They just want retribution, closure. It's biblical all the way, an eye for an eye. But is it up to them to decide? Field and Festinger, thankfully, never provide us with easy answers to that.
The film is very carefully put together, Field seldom making a directorial misstep. His opening sequences are slow and seemingly rambling, making the Fowlers almost deliberately bland and ordinary. Any tension between the characters remains largely unspoken, and even Richard, the disruptive force, seems really like just another confused person. Then, when Frank is killed, the film digs in, and tightens the vise with unbelievable intensity. The grief strangling Matt and Ruth becomes a nearly tangible presence, manifested in the heavy silences that hang between them like Ruth's cigarette smoke (Field cleverly utilizes several mid-scene fades to black to symbolize the darkness enveloping the Fowlers' souls). The only scene that rung a bit false for me is the big confrontation, in which Ruth and Matt finally get their feelings toward one another and their son's death out in the open. It seemed as if their accusations were often coming out of noplace, as if the scene was designed primarily to provide Oscar clips for the actors. Still, something tells me that if I see the film again (and I will), the crimes they are accused of in the argument will be more visible in their earlier behavior.
The film's acting has been justly praised. Spacek is pitch-perfect as an intellectually inclined woman blindsided by her feelings, and Wilkinson has several electric moments, particularly a scene in which he breaks down while examining his dead son's possessions. Tomei makes the most of her limited screen time, though her New England accent is pretty hit-and-miss, and the largely unpraised Stahl does a fine job, making us like Frank despite his errors in judgment and ensuring that we truly feel for the Fowlers when he dies. These are not big, grandstanding, histrionic performances; they are built on careful pieces of observed detail and nuance of speech, eventually adding up to the anatomy of personalities in crisis.
And in the end, when Matt and Ruth finally receive their "justice", a hush hangs over the theatre. We find ourselves asking the question that many of the best dramas provoke: What would I do? Faced with similar circumstances, would I roll over and die, or lash out and get satisfaction by whatever means were at my disposal...even bloody ones? "In The Bedroom" is not contrived, predictable, or patronizing. It's messy, unresolved, often more frustrating than fulfilling. In other words, it's really a lot like life itself.
The Time Machine (2002)
At times, good...at times, not so good
As a subject for fiction, time travel may never lose its appeal. People have always been fascinated with the ideas and implications of men traveling into the past or forward to the future, meeting their own great-grandchildren, changing the course of history. Unless (or until) mankind ever achieves this task, this fascination will continue infinitely...much as time itself sometimes seems to. The latest cinematic iteration of this undying subject is Simon Wells' "The Time Machine", an adaptation of perhaps the most venerated of all time travel tales, written by the director's grandfather, H.G. Wells, in 1896. It's a sturdy and handsomely mounted production that nevertheless encounters its share of narrative bumps and lapses. In this world, man can escape the bounds of time, but he can't undo the shackles of sloppy screenwriting.
Wells' nameless Time Traveler is here christened Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce). He is a turn-of-the-19th-century science professor at Columbia University, desperate to figure out how to change the past after a terrible accident of fate robs him of his lady love. A student of the radical new theories of Einstein and a believer that order was made to be violated, Hartdegan locks himself in his lab and creates the ultimate scientific innovation, a whirling mishmash of brass dials and metal fans that enables one to move through time. Through a series of accidents, Hartdegan is transported not into the past, but 800,000 years into the future, where mankind has evolved into two conflicting races. The Eloi are a peace-loving, idyllic race of simple tribal people. The Morlocks are hideous subterranean killing machines who see the Eloi as...well, I'll leave it at that. Hartdegan realizes the Eloi's horrible fate, and decides that even though he can't change the past, it might not be too late to change the future.
It is to the credit of Wells and screenwriter John Logan that the film does not get excessively bogged down in time-travel paradoxes. We're not sitting there the whole time wondering "Well, if he had really been there, then wouldn't this have...?" You know, all the standard questions you ask yourself when a time-travel tale's really not working. Instead, they are able to pull a surprising amount of emotional interest out of the plight of a man, unmoored from the one thing that allowed him to understand life, adrift in time, looking for a place where he can make a difference, where he will finally make sense.
The picture also has a lot going for it from a technical standpoint. There are plenty of memorable images supplied by cinematographer Donald McAlpine ("Moulin Rouge"), and Oliver Scholl's production design is often a funky mix of future retro and Industrial Age gear-shaft chic. Wells' f/x crew provide several dynamite sequences of Hartdegan's time machine surrounding by the whirling changes of the ages (the rapidly hollowing out rock shapes were my favorite), and though the Morlocks do look a bit more rubbery around the face than they should, the sequence where they attack the Eloi village is relentlessly kinetic and genuinely frightening.
Ultimately, however, even the Morlocks are powerless against third-act problems, and "The Time Machine" is full of them. Jeremy Irons appears as the leader of the Morlocks, who somehow has kept his normal face while the others have evolved into nasty looking pig-rat-faced things. The narrative makes it extremely unclear who exactly he is supposed to be. An evolved form of Morlock? Another time traveler? The unholy evolution of Hartdegan himself? It's never even really delved into by the story, and when the whole shebang is "resolved" with a fistfight between Hartdegan and the Morlock king on the whirling, glowing time machine...finally, the questions start. It's not time-travel paradoxes that trip up "The Time Machine". It's plain old sloppy writing, the willingness to throw logic to the winds just so the filmmakers can make sure that something explodes in the last reel.
The actors do their best with the material. Pearce always seems like a real man and not a buff action hero, though he doesn't display nearly as much life or wit as he did as the sneering villain of "The Count of Monte Cristo". Sienna Guillory, as Hartdegan's 19th-century love, is so charming and pretty that I'd like to see more of her in something where she has more to do. Samantha Mumba, Hartdegan's future partner in action, is also a knockout, but her role doesn't give her much to do besides look pretty and model billowy white pants. Irons is basically wasted, stranded by his ill-conceived character and reduced to the growling "Dungeons & Dragons" theatrics that have become his recent stock in trade. Oddly, the two most moving characters are two who virtually drop out of the last half of the picture, Hartdegan's friend and housekeeper, played with subtle warmth by Mark Addy and Phyllidia Law. It is they who, in many ways, carry the buried message of "The Time Machine". Hartdegan, after all, is able to escape the coming of change by fleeing far beyond the scope of his own life. Addy and Law's characters, however, will remain, to remember Hartdegan and try to enact his change-the-world lesson in their own humble way, a notion cemented by Addy's final, unexpectedly heroic gesture.
Still, maybe I'm getting a little too deep about a few supporting characters in a popcorn movie. "The Time Machine" is like that, though. It's a film you can almost feel straining to be deeper, more probing and profound than it actually is. Wells and Logan are to be commended for bringing the classic novel to the screen with reasonable fidelity (it's not note-for-note, but it's a lot closer than, say, Roland Joffe's "The Scarlet Letter"). Still, this is the cleaned-up happy-ending Hollywood version of classic literature. Over one hundred years after its initial publication, people are still returning to H.G. Wells' novel. I somewhat doubt we'll be able to say the same about Simon Wells' film.
American Pie 2 (2001)
A New Slice of the Same Old Pie
"American Pie 2" is an example of everything the professional critics say a sequel shouldn't do. Rather than providing us with a new, original narrative or daring changes of character direction, it is content to merely serve up variations of the same raunchy gags that made the original a surprise hit in 1999. Some of these gags are admittedly successful, but the phrase "Been there, done that" hangs heavy over the entire film.
It's the summer after freshman year at college, everyone's back home and hornier than ever. Our five male heroes rent a lake house in Grand Harbor, Michigan and spend the summer doing just what they spent the previous film doing: trying to get in girls' pants. A few subplots emerge: Jim (Jason Biggs) enlists the help of his spunky, slyly perverted prom-night one-night-stand Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) in getting him ready for a return visit from Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), the hot exchange student Jim humiliated himself with in the first "Pie". Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Vicky (Tara Reid), having split up after losing their virginity together, struggle with their feelings for each other, while Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari) try their best to carry on a long-distance relationship (complete with ill-conceived phone sex). Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) turns to tantra to harness sexual energy for HIS big return visit from Stifler's mom. And Stifler (Seann William Scott)...well, he's Stifler. It all comes together at a big party at the beach house, but not before some expectedly crude gags involving champagne, Super Glue, and a strategically placed trumpet.
Since a film like "American Pie 2" does not require ground-breaking new film techniques (the tech work and J.B. Rogers' direction are competent and unobtrusive, as they should be), the picture basically hinges on the actors and the writing. The entire cast is back from the first film, but they are not as well-balanced as in the first picture. "Pie 1" was an ensemble piece; this is really Jason Biggs' film. Fortunately, he brings a lot to the table. Jim is the latest variation of an always amusing teen-film stereotype, the cool nerd (a type that reached its apex, I believe, with Jon Cryer's Ducky in "Pretty in Pink"), and Biggs attacks the role with charisma and a breathtaking lack of guile. Whether battling Super Glue attached to his, um, yeah, or pretending to be a "special" trumpet player at Michelle' s band camp, Biggs is utterly unafraid to look bad, to embarrass himself, to be the clown. In a film like this, that is invaluable, and most of the film's laughs belong to him.
The other actors have varying degrees of success. Thomas still amuses with his sleepy-eyed style (though I liked Finch better with his golf and mochachinos), and Eugene Levy, back as Jim's dad, has some obliviously inspired moments. Hannigan is perky and weirdly charming; she makes Michelle the kind of girl you realize, after you've struck out with the ice-witch goddess, is the REAL perfect woman. Sadly, Klein (one of the best actors in this group) and Suvari are hung out to dry, and Nicholas and Reid spend most of their screen time just looking uncomfortable being around each other. Natasha Lyonne is wasted, her sex-guru character seemingly here just because she was in the first film. And Scott...well, it's interesting about him. I have not seen him play any other role but Stifler, and he inhabits it so truthfully, with such raw bravado and blithe nastiness, that I have no way of saying if it's a great performance or if Scott is a jerk and just being himself. But I can say this for sure: Stifler's still a piece of work.
Sadly, screenwriter Adam Herz, back from the first film, largely lets his cast down. The subplots are doled out in perfunctory fashion, with so much emphasis placed on Jim's predicaments that the others sometimes barely seem to be in the film at all. There's no great unifying idea like the first film's "sex pact" pulling the story together. Basically Herz is happy to play variations on the first film's jokes; he's like a jazz musician who knows a thousand different ways to play the only song he knows. Liked Jim and the pie in the first film? Here he is with himself glued to...himself. Liked the Internet humiliation with Nadia? Here all the guys are eavesdropped on (via walkie-talkie) with two possible lesbians. Even the revolting beer gag from the first film is reprised, this time with urine standing in for champagne. My feeling is that if you're not going to come up with an original story, at least try to give us new jokes.
Admittedly, there's a few moments where Herz nails the young-adult mind right on the button (like when Jim sees Vicky, who hasn't changed a bit in the year since they've last seen each other, and exclaims, "Wow! Vicky got hot!"), and the film has a lot of heart mixed in with its raunch. Still, as I watched the film, I realized that I wasn't going to see anything new. I might just as well have watched the first film again; that one had heart, gags, a story, AND the element of surprise on its side. Funny though parts of this film may be, it's really just more of the same. They should have called it "American Pie Too".
Well, this movie is...something...
"Ravenous" walks a dangerous line, a fact that's trumpeted right at the top with titles that inspire a shocked, nasty laugh. This picture, about a 19th-century U.S. cavalry officer who runs afoul of super-powered cannibals in a remote outpost in California, aspires to be many things: a gruesome horror flick, a period picture, a black satire, a commentary on the truly depraved ends to which man will sometimes go in order to achieve his often rapacious ends. That's a lot for any one film to put on its plate (pardon the pun), and "Ravenous" admittedly succeeds better at achieving some of its goals than others.
It's 1847, and John Boyd (Guy Pearce) has just been decorated as a Mexican War hero. His heroism was actually based on cowardice and happenstance; he lay down in fear on the battlefield, was taken for dead, and an accidental taste of his fallen comrades' blood roused him to a one-man counterattack. Boyd the hero is a fraud. His commander knows it, and sends him where he thinks he'll do the least damage. This is Fort Spencer, where a ragtag band of troops wait to guide new settlers to the Nevadas. One night, a depraved, near-naked man arrives at the fort. His name is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), and he has a grim story to tell, a story of a trapped traveling party and the extreme means they adopted to survive their three months of imprisonment in a mountain cave. The soldiers set out to find any survivors, but Colqhoun soon reveals his true colors. He is possessed by the spell of the wendigo, a Native American myth by which the consumption of human flesh imbues one with superhuman powers. The monstrous Colqhoun targets the men, especially Boyd, to join him in creating an army of cannibal supermen who will realize Manifest Destiny...with a vengeance. Those who don't comply...well, a man's gotta eat.
This description may make "Ravenous" sound like a Saturday-matinee trashfest, but Ted Griffin's screenplay is surprisingly ambitious. He makes Colqhoun's taste for flesh mirror his desire for power, and by setting the film at an outpost on territory acquired by the U.S. in a war against its Mexican natives (an outpost, I might add, maintained for the white soldiers by Indians), it reminds us that the American Dream has often been won by the blood of others whose own dreams were snuffed out. Heady stuff, made all the more potent by its inspiration in the Donner Party tragedy, a real-life story of people who came to America seeking their dreams...and finding only a nightmare.
Still, this is all subtext. How does "Ravenous" play on the surface? Well, it blows hot and cold. The cast does competent work, and director Antonia Byrd milks the big moments of action for all they're worth. The film has a nice, authentic look, with cold-parched rocks and the rickety fort invading the serenity of the wilderness. Michael Nyman collaborates with Damian Albarn on a bizarrely effective score that sounds like a mix of sea shantey and the "Friday the 13th" theme played on banjo and squeeze box. Even the moments of gore are well-handled, giving us suggestive (though really very graphic) glimpses of atrocities that help to build Colqhoun's villainous status in our minds.
I think the film's one real mistake is the inclusion of too many ill- conceived attempts at humor. They work when they're kept pitch-black (like the stomach-turning banquet that opens the film), but when the fort's second in command, Knox (Stephen Spinella) is stumbling around drunk half the time and Private Cleaves (David Arquette) is stoned whenever Knox isn't drunk, it's just distracting. I think that if played a little more straight, with the humorous asides saved for when they're most inappropriate, Byrd and Griffin might have had a morbid little masterpiece on their hands.
As it stands, "Ravenous" is a perfectly respectable entertainment. It's a good-looking, generally well-made film that serves up plenty of action, amusing moments, and just enough thematic depth to provide something meaty to digest on the way back to the video store.
Again, pardon the pun.
Miss this one, and you will miss nothing
"Impostor" is one of the hardest kinds of films to write about. At least with most bad films, there is some unique quality to their badness that warrants comment. "Joe Dirt" took a potentially hilarious satirical character and stupidly tried to make him a conventional hero; "Antitrust" devolved from a promising first act into standard thriller cliches; "The Musketeer" was sunk by its underlit cinematography and pawnshop production values. "Impostor", directed by Gary Fleder and based on a short story by the great Phillip K. Dick of "Blade Runner" fame, has nothing like that to make its lack of quality remarkable. It's merely a bad, lame, unexciting picture, virtually devoid of thrills and sure to pass from memory almost as soon as you've finished watching.
It's 2079, and Earth has evolved into the same streamlined, anonymous- gray-building metropolis we've been seeing in game shows and syndicated sci-fi for the last twenty years. The human race is at war with Centauri (we never find out if this is a planet, an alien race, or what), the cities are all underneath electromagnetic defense shields, and Spencer Olman (Gary Sinise) has just finished designing a super- weapon that may end the fighting for good. Before he can unveil it at a big state dinner, however, he is taken captive by Major Hathaway (Vincent D'Onofrio), who informs Spence that he is not who he thinks he is...he is in fact a cyborg with a bomb in his heart, on his way to assassinate the Earth chancellor and possibly trigger Centauri's take-over of earth. Spence escapes and, joining forces with a mysterious drifter (Mekhi Phifer), has to find his doctor wife Maya (Madeleine Stowe) and convince her that he is not a killer robot...or is he?
This type of identity-bending plot was sort of a stock in trade of Dick's, and already inspired two superior sci-fi epics, "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall". "Impostor" will not join that illustrious company. It's more like a played-straight, not-funny version of "Battlefield Earth" without the dreadlocks. To start with, the story is marginal to the point of being skeletal; once we learn that Sinise is possibly this cyborg, it's nothing but a big chase until the not-at-all-shocking twist ending. The Centauri war is a plot device rather than a plot, and we never even get a big payoff at the state dinner where the assassination is supposed to take place (Lindsay Crouse, as the chancellor, has one quick scene on a TV monitor, then we never see her again).
In fact, most of the film's best actors are underused. Vincent D'Onofrio, always a sure hand with an unconventional line reading or moment, is reduced to storming through a forest with a gun in his hand; he's never given the big moments he needs to become a truly memorable adversary for our hero. Phifer is wasted, and Tony Shalhoub (as Sinise's co-scientist) is gone from the film before we even get a chance to see him do anything. This is really the Gary Sinise Show, and he is not compelling enough here to hold our attention or gain our sympathy. He plays the character throughout the picture on the same note of confused indignation; there's never a moment where his guard is down and we get to see the real man underneath the heroic posturing. For all his talk about his love for his wife, we finally just don't care about him.
The picture tries to hide its lack of interest with heavy doses of "filmmaking". Mark Isham's score pounds away at your brain in an effort to create a false sense of drama, the editing is relentlessly, needlessly fast, and the camera is constantly on the prowl, afraid to settle down for a moment lest our attention move elsewhere. The production design is completely uninspired; it's like the art department opened a box labelled "Sci-Fi Action Thriller Set" and pulled this out. And the less said about the hokey video-game-sequence graphics of the space war at the beginning, the better.
Frankly, I'm amazed that I've found this much to say about a film that stimulated me so little while I was viewing it. I can say this for "Impostor"; it's not the worst science fiction film I've ever seen. No. True awfulness takes on an authentic soul, and this film is far too uninspired for that.
Texas Rangers (2001)
To the millions who didn't go...it's your loss
It's a real shame. "Texas Rangers", Steve Miner's new take on the founding of the famous band of Old West law enforcers, was held back from release for almost a whole year, subjected to numerous re-edits, dumped into theatres without any fanfare, and greeted with apathy and pathetic grosses. And you know what? It's one of the most entertaining films I've seen all year.
The film stars James Van Der Beek as an upright Eastern inventor's son who, on his first trip to the wild west, sees his parents and brothers killed before his eyes by marauding bandits. Desperate for revenge, he enlists with the Rangers, a more-or-less vigilante band led by Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott), an ex-Confederate soldier with a vendetta of his own. McNelly's band of young gunslingers battle their way across the Texas border country, sniffing out bandits, doling out frontier justice, romancing the women-folk, etc., etc.
In other words, "Texas Rangers" does nothing you can't see in any B-western on Saturday afternoon TV. It's just that it does most of it a lot better than we've seen for quite some time. After the rather too glossy "American Outlaws", it's nice to get a Western with a gritty, authentic look. The towns look appropriately small and weather-beaten, the costumes nice and trail-worn. The only gloss here is on the guns...and I guess some of those young cowpokes are kind of glittery, too.
Miner's direction is curiously hot and cold here. He excels in quiet moments, dialogue and character, but his action scenes sometimes come up short. He seems particularly to have a bad habit of always putting his camera in the wrong place when his quick action payoffs arrive (bullets hitting home, knives landing on target). Still, the picture moves with lots of energy and excitement, and Miner is definitely to thank for that. Also, he scores in the big action climax, where the Rangers storm the desperadoes' Mexican hideout. Here, the camera always finds the right spot, and the result is a fast, pulse-quickening blowout.
A fine cast gives a lot of luster to the material. James Van Der Beek has never been just another WB pretty boy, and he takes to the Western with grace and conviction. Ashton Kutcher is okay as a hayseed gunman, but at times comes off a little too much like he's still on "That '70s Show". Usher Raymond is nicely understated as a former-slave ranger, and while Rachael Leigh Cook's rancher's daughter is really superfluous to the plot, her gorgeous face is absolutely essential. Fine supporting turns dot the picture, with standouts being Randy Travis and Robert Patrick as McNelly's lieutenants and Vincent Spano as a cocky, villainous gunslinger.
Really, though, this is Dylan McDermott's show. I have never been much of a fan of "The Practice", and was stunned by the force and power of McDermott's work here. He carries himself with solid-as-a-rock strength, and handles his quieter emotional moments with consummate restraint. He also looks superbly the part, eyes glowering beneath his black hat, guns blazing away from the back of his horse. Of course, it also helps that Scott Busby and Martin Copeland's screenplay turns McNelly into a complex and fascinating character. Haunted by the memory of his wife and child, (stolen by bandits while he was off in the wars), dogged by a sickness that is bearing down on his soul, always trusting the gun and the noose over the badge and the lawbook, McNelly is a classic western hero, bigger than life and still movingly human. It's a terrific performance, one of the best I've seen this year, and it makes me wish that they'll keep making westerns just so McDermott can keep acting in them.
Of course, they won't keep making them if people won't get off their duffs and go see the good ones when they come along. And trust me, "Texas Rangers" is one of the good ones, a top-class B-picture with an A-list lead performance. Give it a look, if it's still at your local theatre. I guarantee you won't be sorry you did.
Maybe I should have read the book first (or instead)
Like a lot of people, I was very excited when I saw the trailers for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone". I have not read the books by J.K. Rowling but can certainly appreciate the hold they have exerted over the minds of our culture, and besides, the film just looked pretty damn good. Like a lot of people, I have now seen the film. Unlike a lot of people, I know that the bloom is more or less off of the rose.
"Sorcerer's Stone", the story of a neglected orphan's first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is exactly what a film of this type should not be: EARTHBOUND. The whole time I was watching it (and a long time it was, the film runs an I-can't-believe-kids-are- sitting-through-this-when-I-barely-can 152 minutes), I kept wondering what a director like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton would have made of this material, someone who knows how to put a fantasy world on the screen in all of its foreboding mystery and magic. Chris Columbus, who gave the world such dazzling forays into the fantastical as "Stepmom" and "Adventures In Babysitting", just doesn't seem to have been the right man for the job. The film has all the requisite effects and magical happenings present and accounted for, but that extra special whatever it is that makes a film like this truly memorable is just not there.
As I mentioned before, I haven't read Rowling's book, so I don't know if she made more of the characters than is done here. Overall, however, I felt like screenwriter Steve Kloves (also responsible for the tedious "Wonder Boys") short-changed a lot of Rowling's most interesting figures. Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), Hogwarts' imposing potions instructor, has nothing to do but stand around and glower imperiously. Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter's rival, is evil, I guess, because he has a widow's peak; he really doesn't do anything besides scowl at Harry. Even young Master Potter himself could have used more zip, even though newcomer Daniel Radcliffe gives a fine, unaffected portrayal. These deficiencies are especially egregious considering the running time, much of which is taken up by characters explaining arcane magical concepts to one another (I'm serious about what I said earlier; all I ever hear is that kids have no attention span...how on earth are they getting through this thing?).
What's more, the film never really makes good on its central conceit. This is, after all, a film about a SCHOOL FOR WIZARDS! That's a cool idea in ways I can't even describe, but "Sorcerer's Stone" doesn't really do enough to pay it off. We see precious little of the actual instruction, the whys and wherefores of wizardry, and thus the film almost seems to be shying away from its central concept.
This is not to say that there are not many things to admire about "Sorcerer's Stone". The production design is everything one could ask for, Hogwarts an imposing old manse of stone and spiraling stairways (and be careful...the staircases move!). The special effects are generally impressive, from big set pieces like the Quidditch game to little grace notes like the constantly shifting paintings on the Hogwarts walls. John Williams contributes yet another of his fine scores, complete with a theme you'll walk out humming. In addition to Radcliffe, several other actors also acquit themselves admirably. Robbie Coltrane invests Hogwarts giant Hagrid with blustery charm, Maggie Smith is a fine, tartly English MacGonagal, but newcomer Rupert Grint practically walks off with the film as Harry's friend Ron Weasley. He has one of those faces that always looks apologetic, and his lines ("She seriously has to work on her priorities") are the best in the picture.
Still, my mind keeps returning to one word..."disappointment". Does it even matter? The film's already made ten truckloads of money, and kids who must have fallen asleep during it (as I'll admit I did) are still saying it's their favorite all-time movie. Work has already begun on a sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets", and there was enough I liked about "Sorcerer's Stone" that I'll probably check out this second film, too. Remember, though: you can't fool me thrice. If the follow-up bottoms out, I won't be back for "Prisoner of Azkaban".
Hmmm...maybe they could get Joel Schumacher to direct... ;)
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Colorful, Crazy, and Very Much Fun
When I first saw the ads for "Monsters Inc.", I didn't have very high hopes. Sure, the animation by the great Pixar computer-cartoon gurus ("Toy Story", "A Bug's Life") was impressive as always, and the characters were clever-looking, but the images I saw just weren't zapping me the way I've come to expect from a Pixar film. I went into this one with low hopes, expecting the mildest product from the studio yet.
Well, consider me standing corrected. "Monsters Inc." is second only to the incomparable "Toy Story" as the best picture Pixar has released so far. It's chock-full of imaginative visual moments, quirky characters, unexpected gags, and a surprisingly sincere story about the love between a goofy little toddler and the blue furry monster who befriends her.
The monster is James "Sully" Sullivan (voice by John Goodman), the top scarer at Monsters Inc., a company that collects the screams of children. These screams are needed to power the sprawling city of Monstropolis, an alternate universe where all of our childhood nightmares live just like you and me. Sully loves his job and enjoys working with his partner, googly-eyed Mike (Billy Crystal); the only sour spot on his day is Randall (Steve Buscemi), a menacing chameleonic monster who's desperate to be the top scarer. And of course, like all monsters, Sully is terrified that one of the children it's his job to scare will escape through their closet into Monstropolis. Human children are toxic, dontcha know. Well, if you guessed that a kid makes it to Monstropolis, you're already way ahead of the writers here. Still, the child, a little pigtailed girl named Boo, is not what you expect, and Sully finds himself curiously drawn to her even as the CDA (Child Detection Agency) and Randall are closing in.
All this is presented with real ebullience and flair by the Pixar team, led by "Toy Story" co-writer Pete Docter, here making his directorial debut. This light-as-a-feather bedtime tale is socked home with imaginative animation and character designs throughout. These folks are masters of the tiny detail that does it all; from the three-lensed glasses on a Monsters Inc. assistant to the "rancid garbage" deodorant Mike sprays on before a big date, it all works wonderfully, goosing the humor and giving us a sense of total immersion in a big, funny world.
Enormous credit must also be given here to the vocal cast, who invest their performances with real wit and warmth. Goodman's Sully is a charmer, Crystal is ideal comic relief, and Buscemi provides his trademark slimy bad-guy vibe (this time for a bad guy who is literally slimy). Other standouts are James Coburn as the crablike head of Monsters Inc. and John Ratzenberger as an oddly familiar abominable snowman (think "Bumbles"), but the real stroke of genius here is the use of Mary Gibbs, the two-year-old daughter of a Pixar employee, as the voice of Boo. It is so much more effective and endearing to have a real little girl's voice emanating from this adorable animated creation than if an actor was just doing a little-girl imitation. Pixar's animators make Boo jump and dance, but Gibbs makes her LIVE.
The film is a never-ending series of impressive visual set-pieces, culminating in a wild chase through a gigantic hall of children's closet doors. All of this is set to a lively jazz-tinged score by Randy Newman, who only bobbles the ball in a final number that seems as if it was meant to score a song-and-dance number cut from the film (obvious dance interludes, stuff like that).
My only real gripe with "Monsters Inc." is a rather anticlimactic finish that sends us out on a curiously downcast note. Still, there's so much energy, exuberance, and life racketing around this film that it makes up for the wrong note at the end. Today, as Pottermania takes over American theatres, please remember that Mike and Sully are still holding forth right across the multiplex hall. And remember...they scare because they care.
The Last Castle (2001)
In an era when most new filmmakers seem less concerned with story than with figuring out new and creative ways to possibly damage their camera equipment, it's encouraging to see someone like Rod Lurie come along. A former film critic, Lurie has emerged in the last few years as a maker of old-fashioned "good movies well made". He impressed me last year with the political drama "The Contender", and this year he brings us "The Last Castle", a prison picture that overcomes some dramatic potholes to provide a solid two hours' worth of entertainment.
The castle in question here is a maximum security military prison, home to the armed forces' toughest offenders. The whole place is ruled by Col. Winter (James Gandolfini), a tinpot tyrant who delights in turning his prisoners against one another. Make them forget they are soldiers, make them forget they are MEN, and you will win...that's Winter's philosophy. Then, a monkey wrench is thrown into the works, in the form of Gen. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford), a much-decorated three-star general court-martialed for a battlefield infraction. Irwin immediately sees Winter for what he is, and as his weeks in the prison wear on, he begins to realize that he is surrounded by SOLDIERS, tough, competent, and ready to fight. All they need is a general to get behind...and a villain to rally against.
"The Last Castle" is a character-driven piece, and is carried by the strengths of its performances. Robert Redford takes a character who is admittedly rather sketchily written and, through sheer force of his charisma and personality, turns him into someone quirky and specific. Irwin is more like the Sundance Kid than any character Redford has played in some time: a rebel battling against a system that has arrayed insurmountable odds against him. This time, however, Irwin is a product of the system, and he knows its rules. Redford conveys that wisdom with a bemused grin or a mere flex of his craggy but still handsome face. This, folks, is star power.
The actors surrounding him put in equally fine work. James Gandolfini is miles away from "The Sopranos" as the despotic Col. Winter, and makes him a fine villain, loathsome yet pathetic and curiously affecting at the same time. Mark Ruffalo comfortably wears the role of the prison bookie, a cynic whose father was a Vietnam P.O.W. with Irwin, and Clifton Collins, so creepy and evil as the assassin Frankie Flowers in "Traffic", turns in a drastically different turn here as a stuttering corporal who first recognizes Irwin's greatness.
Lurie helms this material with assured confidence. He gives the film a gritty, authentic look and feel, he knows how to recognize a dramatic moment and pay it off, and he handles the film's quieter scenes and its boisterous action payoffs with equal elan. Any way you slice it, it's just good filmmaking.
Though David Scarpa and Graham Yost spike their screenplay with memorable moments and fine dialogue, they shoot themselves in the foot with third-act implausibilities (you'll find yourselves asking more than once, "Now how did they manage to throw THAT together?") and an abrupt finale that leaves too many unanswered questions.
Still, even with these problems, "The Last Castle" is a solid, rousing piece of mainstream entertainment. It's well-made, it tells a good story without insulting your intelligence or your good taste, and it showcases some fine acting by veterans and newcomers alike. And I bet Lurie didn't even break any of his cameras. I'm sure Dreamworks appreciates that, if nothing else.
A very funny comedy...maybe
Jon Favreau's "Made" is an unusual film. It's ostensibly a comedy, and indeed a lot of it made me laugh hard. Still, when I thought about it later, I realized that I had not really seen a comedy at all. The situation isn't funny, the main character doesn't react to it in a funny way, and the resolution isn't played for laughs. What you get is a straight-laced, sometimes even rather flat kitchen-sink crime drama which Vince Vaughn grabs by the throat and, through the sheer force of his heroically obnoxious portrayal, turns into a bizarre sort of almost-comedy.
Jon Favreau is Bobby, a rather unskilled L.A. club fighter who makes his real living doing odd jobs for Max (a gravelly Peter Falk), the local small-time crime boss. Bobby lives with a stripper (Famke Janssen) who he bodyguards for, but one night a bachelor party guest puts his hands where they shouldn't go, and Bobby lays into him rough. Max is furious, but he likes Bobby, and gives him a chance to right his wrong. He must go to New York, rendezvous with big-cheese crime kingpin Ruiz (Sean "Puffy" Combs), and make some sort of ill-defined "drop". It might all go smoothly...if Ricky wasn't along for the ride.
Ricky is Vince Vaughn's character, and he's like a force of nature..if nature was obnoxious and pushy. He is not the sharpest cheese in the fridge, and he begins acting like a Mafia big shot even before they leave L.A., tormenting their stewardess with stupid questions. He bulldozes hotel valets, waitresses, club bouncers, and pick-ups with the sheer volcanic power of his boorishness, and most of it is actually really funny (not all of it; I actually started to feel bad for the stewardess). Vaughn proved his ability to play charmingly rude in "Swingers", still my pick for the best romantic comedy of the last decade. Here, it's like that film's Trent has been given a sharper suit, a mob expense account, and a small but definitely serious chip on his shoulder. Ricky is the reason "Made" is being called a comedy; he basically provides the picture's only laughs.
The other performers operate on various levels of reality. Favreau is more or less the film's lead character, but he's basically there just to play off Vaughn's disgraceful behavior and act indignant when Ricky gets them in another scrape. Falk is like a caricature of a too-powerful- too-long neighborhood kingpin. Janssen's character is played completely straight, and comes off as unlikable and rather depressing. Oddly enough, the only other actors in the film who really seem to be contributing a humorous atmosphere are Combs and Faizon Love, who plays the boys' liaison to Ruiz. Combs has a surprisingly versatile array of put-upon expressions, and Love's massive bulk and hostile bark of a voice work to scary-amusing effect.
Overall, though, Favreau seems a little shaky on what the tone of his film should be ("Swingers", written by Favreau but directed by Doug Liman, had a confidence that this picture never even approaches). There's lots of gritty hand-held camera from Hong Kong-based lensman Chris Doyle, and the sets' grungy low-rent atmosphere (even the hotels that are supposed to be nice look dark and a bit run-down) make it sometimes feel like we're watching a weird documentary rather than a fiction film, let alone a comedy. Favreau's dialogue is yet another "realistic" display that illustrates, if anyone had any doubts, that the f-word in and of itself is not a punchline. The film has a bummer of an ending followed by an out-of-nowhere epilogue that, quite frankly, I didn't understand.
I guess "Made" is what you'd call a human comedy, a picture where we're supposed to smile with recognition as we see characters not unlike ourselves who find themselves in unbelievable situations and try to deal with them just by being who they are. I'm usually not a big fan of this type of film. If you're calling it a comedy, I'd better be laughing. Still, Vaughn, Combs, and Love provide enough good moments that the picture is worth checking out at least once. Just don't expect "Swingers", and you should be all right.
Osmosis Jones (2001)
Sadly Got Lost In The Summer Shuffle
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** I'm writing this review a few weeks after the release of "Osmosis Jones", Warner Bros. live action / animation gross-out comedy, and the picture is already basically gone from theatres. Audiences really did not get on board for this film, which uses traditional animation along with high-tech computer graphics to create a sprawling fantasy world set inside the body of a sloppy loser. It's their loss. "Osmosis Jones" is one of the funnier films to hit theatres this year, an endlessly clever and bizarre comedy with enough visual invention and screwy plot conceits for two films.
Frank DiTorre (Bill Murray) is a slob. Fat, balding, stubbly, he's like a big greasy eating and farting machine, to the neverending shame of his sweet young daughter (Elana Franklin). One day, Frank finally puts his mouth where it doesn't belong, namely on a hard-boiled egg he fought from the gullet of an orangutan at the zoo. As he slurps down the egg, we follow it into his body, where Thrax (voiced by a malevolent Laurence Fishburne), the monkey virus that hitched a ride on the egg, initiates his plan to kill Frank in 48 hours, a personal record.
Frank's only defense? Osmosis Jones (Chris Rock), a gunslinging, wisecracking white blood cell and the joke of the "City of Frank Police Department". He knows Thrax is on the attack, but he can't get anyone to listen to him. His chief thinks he's a screwup, and the city's would-be "brain trust", Mayor Phlegmming (William Shatner) is too busy trying to get re-elected by promising his voters a visit to the Buffalo Chicken Wing festival next week for some good binge eating. The only one on Osmosis' side is Drix (David Hyde Pierce), a cold pill who's a bit stuffy himself. It's up to these two mismatched partners to track Thrax from the bowels to the brain and rescue Frank before he goes into a crash dive and realizes that he really, REALLY shouldn't have eaten that egg.
Animation directors Piet Kroon and Tom Sito take us on a truly wild tour of the body, casting each organ in an amusing and oddly appropriate role. Frank's armpits are a steam bath for the city's germ gangsters, the liver is a skid-row slum full of bums, the bowels are the red-light district, the stomach the airport. It's all grandly realized with a sweep even some live-action films might be pressed to top, and it's as impressive in its way as the "cyberthespians" of this summer's "Final Fantasy" (another big-budget animated film that did not fly with moviegoers). The characters themselves are just as entertaining, thanks to bouncy design and the effective voice work of Shatner, Rock, and especially Pierce and Fishburne. Thrax in particular is a droll and bloodthirsty villain, and as he stalks through Frank's nether regions, scratching up a fever with his razor talons, the threat to poor pathetic Frank seems surprisingly urgent.
The film's live action segments are directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and while I have found most of their recent work as funny as a crutch, here they score some big laughs. Murray's dissipation is marvelous, and a scene in which he horrifies his daughter's teacher (Molly Shannon) with a volcanic forehead zit is among the most gruesomely funny I've seen in a while.
Marc Hyman's script is witty and clever, and the film is peppered with so many throwaway gags that it's really worth seeing twice to pick up all the jokes you missed (my favorite: a sign on the wall of an inner-Frank diner reading "No Cilia, No Cytoplasm, No Service"). It spanks along at a nice brisk pace, helped immensely by a catchy soundtrack of pop and rap tunes.
I had a great time at "Osmosis Jones", and it's really a mystery to me why more audiences didn't go for it. Maybe the bodily humor was too clever and not gross enough for kids. Maybe the poster (which featured no actors) didn't help. Maybe people can only stomach one animated film per summer, and they had already seen "Shrek". Don't let the film's box office failure keep you away, though. Check it out at the cheap theatres, or at the very least see it on video. I bet you'll be surprised how much you enjoy yourself.
Rat Race (2001)
Funny, funny, funny
Every now and then, it's nice to see a film that is not trying to say anything about the world, that is not trying to sell itself as the start of a new bulldozer franchise, that is not interested in anything but keeping us as entertained as possible for its running time. Jerry Zucker's hilarious chase caper "Rat Race" is just such a film, and after a summer of big-budget, self-serious piffle, boy, did we need it.
The film is a throwback to those all-star '60s and '70s comedies in which a gang of celebs chase after a treasure or other wonderful prize (the template for these films is the classic "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World"). It begins in Las Vegas, with six strangers chosen at random by an eccentric casino owner (John Cleese, sporting gleaming false teeth) to go after $2 million in cash stashed in a train-station locker in Silver City, New Mexico. The only rule? "There are no rules!" So it's off they go, by any means necessary, to beat the other rats and grab the big cheese.
That's pretty much it. Screenwriter Andy Breckman (a veteran of the David Letterman show) doesn't clutter his story with a lot of subplots, and we barely learn anything about some of the characters. Still, that doesn't stop us from enjoying the craziness that strikes all of them on their dash for the cash.
A upstanding young lawyer (Breckin Meyer) gets his first taste of the wild life as he goes for the gold with the help of a sexy young pilot (Amy Smart) who teaches us that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned who can also fly a helicopter. Two con-artist brothers (Seth Green, Vince Vieluf) smash up every car they get their hands on and then get a taste of their own medicine when they crash into a demolition derby. A disgraced NFL referee (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) finds himself driving a busload of Lucille Ball impersonators. A narcoleptic Italian (Rowan Atkinson) learns that you shouldn't play games with somebody's heart...literally. An estranged mother and daughter (Whoopi Goldberg, Lanai Chapman) should have bought a squirrel. And as for Jon Lovitz, whose subplot provides the film's most explosive laughs? I don't want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that if you're ever in the southwest, and you see a sign for the "Barbie Museum", just keep driving.
This is a lot of stuff for any film, and "Rat Race" clocks in at 112 minutes, hefty for a comedy. Still, Zucker keeps the action and laughs barrelling along at a breakneck pace, and the story only really bogs down during Goldberg and Chapman's scenes. This subplot provides the fewest laughs and could probably been eliminated. Atkinson's loony Italian accent and absurd personality spank his scenes along beautifully. Meyer and Smart display a free and fun chemistry (not surprising, considering they are, unless I'm mistaken, a real-life couple). Gooding has a surprising gift for zany comic breakdown, Cleese is appropriately loud and nasty, and Green and Vieluf throw themselves into their smash-up comedy with gusto. Lovitz, in some ways, has it easy. He's got the best material in the film, so he can just sit back and let the script do the work.
After two years of teen comedies in which flying body fluids matter more than setup and punch (and if the success of "American Pie 2" is any indication, this is an era that is not soon going to end), it is a great pleasure to see a comedy that revels in the elegant and difficult art of building, detonating and sustaining a joke. Breckman sometimes sets up jokes that don't pay off until a half-hour into the film, lines and moments feed off of one another in a fast-break comic circle, and Zucker keeps it all crackling along with such confidence that the payoffs, when they come, seem both unexpected and inevitable. The picture is edited to turn on a dime, and Zucker is clearly a man who knows his way around a camera; one of the funniest moments is a long super-slo-mo shot of Green and Vieluf desperately trying to escape from their car as a monster truck bears down on them. See the film, picture the same shot in regular time, and you'll know what I mean.
"Rat Race" bogs down somewhat at the end with a "feel-good" finale that goes on too long. Still, as far as laughs, nasty laughs, good-natured laughs, bang-up laughs, just plain laughs, "Rat Race" is THE film to see right now. Forget the apes. This summer, it's all about the rats.
American Outlaws (2001)
It's not good, but it's good fun
The legend of Jesse James is one of those stories that people just never seem to get tired of. Every few years, we see a new cinematic version of the life of James, a former Confederate raider who became a folk hero after he turned to banditry following the war. The latest iteration of the story is "American Outlaws", a red-blooded B-style shoot-'em-up that offers little in the way of historical accuracy and even less in the way of storytelling elegance, but does serve up plenty of action and lots of fun.
Jesse (hot Irish newcomer Colin Farrell) makes a name for himself on the battlefields of the Civil War as an unpredictable live wire willing to do anything to get the Yankees. After the war, he and his levelheaded sure-shot brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) return to their home in Liberty, Missouri, only to find the railroad coming through town. The big rail money, backed up by hard-skulled detective Allen Pinkerton (a glowering Timothy Dalton), wants to buy the James farm, but the boys aren't selling. They didn't shed their blood on the battlefields just to give their home over to a railroad. Soon, however, it's back to war when a bomb destroys their farmhouse and the only way to get revenge is to strap on your guns and ride. As they rob railroad payrolls and bedevil the authorities, Jesse, Frank, and their gang get something besides revenge: they become authentic American legends.
It's a story every schoolboy knows. Hell, Bobby Brady was a Jesse James aficionado. Still, it's been a while since we've had a telling of the story, and this one does a fairly good job of keeping us entertained. Les Mayfield is not the obvious choice to direct a western (his most notable previous film was "Encino Man" with Pauly Shore), but he actually does a decent job. He handles the action sequences with flair, particularly a crackerjack bank shootout and Jesse's escape from the rail baron's train. The film's period accoutrements are all present and accounted for, the costumes and guns appropriately impressive, the cinematography by Russell Boyd all vibrant browns and golds.
There are also some nice performances from the mostly young cast. Colin Farrell makes Jesse a likable, oddly sweet kid whose charm is just as deadly as his gun. Scott Caan matches him as the hotheaded Cole Younger (more on him later), and Gabriel Macht is a sensible and solid Frank, his performance the best thing in the film. Ali Larter is nice eye candy as Jesse's lady love, but the story really gives her nothing to do, and while Dalton growls impressively behind a grungy-looking beard, he doesn't really get the chance to do anything evil.
This is where "American Outlaws" starts shooting itself in the foot. There is no real sense of a concrete enemy for the boys to battle, a true and implacable adversary. Harris Yulin blusters and barks as the railroad baron, but he never truly emerges as a figure of loathing. As a result, the film's finale is unfocused and confusing. Pinkerton's final action in particular makes no sense to me at all. Is he just giving a cocky young kid the benefit of the doubt? Is he doing it because Jesse's wife is hot? I don't get it.
"American Outlaws" is a frustrating film in some ways because everything you like is balanced by something that rubs you the wrong way. A great Civil War battle opening is marred by the sparseness of the Union ranks (Mayfield should have called for more extras that day). An appropriately Coplandesque score by Trevor Rabin is almost wholly sabotaged by the inclusion of a Moby song (MOBY!) at both the beginning and the end of the film. It almost makes you want to grab a six-gun yourself and blaze away at the troublemakers, leaving behind only those who are contributing admirably to the enterprise.
Still, I've come to expect the good with the bad this summer, and "American Outlaws" joins "Tomb Raider" and "The Mummy Returns" as a piece of escapism that is better than the critics' comments indicate, but not as good as it probably should be. Still, with these flouncy dull MTV teen comedies STILL dominating the marketplace, it's nice to see someone delivering a good old fashioned genre piece. In these parlous cinematic times, even a problematic western is better than no western at all.
I close with a bit of real history: after they stopped riding with the James boys, Cole Younger and his outlaws kept going, and one time even attempted to rob a farmhouse in their area. The woman of the house got the drop on them, though; she slammed a window on a gang member's hand, costing him two of his fingers. She survived to live a healthy long life, and have children and grandchildren of her own. One of those grandchildren was my grandmother. Someone should put THAT in a movie. It would make me happy.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Don't Believe The Anti-Hype
After reading all the excoriating reviews, I did not have high hopes for "Pearl Harbor", Michael Bay's epic-romantic restaging of the battle that brought America into World War II. I was expecting corn, bathos, high-gloss trash. And I got all of that, except for the trash part. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much this picture held my interest and engaged my emotions.
Rafe and Danny (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) are two young hotshot flyboys for the U.S. Marines. At the dawn of the war, they are living the would-be hero's life; while the Brits slug it out with the Nazis, the American army sits happily idle. Rafe is sent overseas to join an elite American-British unit, and while he's facing peril in the air, Danny is becoming maybe too close to Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), Rafe's WAC lover. The two friends are on a collision course...but just as things are coming to a head, Japanese zeroes buzz into the Hawaiian sky and begin raining death down on Pearl Harbor. All differences must be put aside, personal slights forgotten. It's all about America now, and a huge mission is mounted to show Japan that the U.S. is not about to go gently into that good night.
"Pearl Harbor" is three hours long, and does drag at certain key junctures, but the thing that surprised me was how completely engaging the first hour of the picture was. I was expecting to spend the entire romantic prelude to the battle twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the bombs to drop. Instead, I found myself really caring for these young people and anxious to see how things would turn out for them. I give full credit for this to Affleck, Beckinsale, and Hartnett, who deliver honest, straightforward, unpretentious performances, the kind of serve-the-story acting that makes a film like this work.
Once the attack on the harbor begins, however, this becomes Michael Bay's picture, and he gives us some of the most impressive battle sequences I've seen in a while. Naturally, an air battle is a different beast than the frenzied ground combat of "Saving Private Ryan", just as Bay is a different animal than Spielberg. "Pearl Harbor"'s war scenes are polished, much prettier than "Ryan". Still, the violence hits you like a punch in the gut; even with the PG-13 rating, Bay does not seem to be holding back. The special effects are some of the best I've seen, surpassing "Titanic" in their realism and scope. The sound is appropriately devastating, and John Schwartzman outdoes himself with his grand, sweeping cinematography (marred only by the ugly soft-focus images he uses in the hospital-aftermath sequences).
The film does begin to drag somewhat in its final hour, as a stentorian commander (Alec Baldwin) prepares to lead his men on a retaliatory strike on Japan. I knew the film had some problems when I figured out how it was going to end, learned I was wrong...and thought my ending was better, more dramatically satisfying. Still, the film does send you out on a proud-to-be-an-American note, and for a Memorial Day weekend release, I assume that's what they were going for.
"Pearl Harbor" is by no means a classic. Indeed, it seems that everything I really liked about the film was countered by something that stuck in my craw. Jon Voight does wonderful work as FDR...that is almost sabotaged by silly-putty makeup. The inclusion of the character of Dorrie Miller (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), a black ship's cook who finally got a chance to fight for his country during the attack, was a nice one...but marred by Wallace's blatantly foreshadowing dialogue. It's a tricky film in that regard. You want to love it unconditionally, but the discerning viewer in you keeps holding you back.
Still, unlike many critics, I feel that the good here largely outweighs the bad. "Pearl Harbor" may not be a spot-on retelling of history, but it gives enough of the facts that I believe many kids will be encouraged to seek out books and films that can give them the REAL story. I think that Michael Bay would be quite proud of that. I think it's something to be proud of, too.
Nothing But Fun
It does not surprise me that "Shrek" has had such across-the-board support from parents and kids. More than most animated films I have seen, this one truly lives up to the durable cliche "fun for the whole family". It's packed to the gills with gross-out sight gags and wild slapstick that will keep the little ones in stitches, while the adults will roar at the film's one-liners, cynical take on the fairy tale, and dead-on ridiculing of the Disney money machine.
Shrek (voiced with a rich Scots burr by Mike Myers) is a foul-tempered ogre who lives in a mucky swamp. He scares away anyone who sets foot in his boggy home, but all his bluster is just a shield for loneliness; he believes his ugliness has doomed him to a life of solitude. That all ends, however, when a passel of fairy tale characters, banished from the kingdom by the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), set up camp in his swamp. Desperate to get his swamp back, Shrek journeys to Farquaad's surprisingly theme-park-esque kingdom to confront him. Instead of his swamp, he is given a mission to slay a dragon and rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who the diminutive lord wishes to take for his bride. Shrek and his talking donkey, Donkey (Eddie Murphy), rescue the princess, but on the way back to Farquaadland, things get complicated when ol' Shrek starts feeling those butterflies for Fiona...
This endearing fractured-fairy-tale narrative sets us up for countless beautifully delivered gags that send up the conventions and characters of children's stories. A Robin Hood character and his men prove to be a little more merry than they probably need to be. A gingerbread man is subject to unspeakable tortures, right down to having his legs washed down with a glass of cold milk. An epic battle between Shrek and Farquaad's knights is a slam-bang WWF-style extravaganza. It's all so silly that you can't help but giggle in delight.
The film saves its best gags for its send-up of the Walt Disney animation ethos, the studio's co-opting of sometimes prickly fairy tale characters and investing of them with a marketable, kid-friendly aura. Here, the same characters we have loved in Disney pictures are edgy, quarrelsome types, and the hero is not your typical square-jawed Disney type, but a lumpy, bumpy, green-scaled lug. With bad teeth. Oh, and there's an out-of-nowhere swipe at "It's a Small World" that alone is worth the price of admission.
Still, if all this film had going for it was sarcastic humor, I don't think it would have become the blockbuster it is. There are, I think, three major secrets to "Shrek"'s success. First, the animation is amazing, taking computer-generated imagery to new heights of realism and tactility. The backgrounds are flawless in their verisimilitude, and the characters look as rich and full-bodied as anyone in live-action films.
Second, the story is a genuinely sweet one. Shrek may look like a beastie, but underneath, he just wants to be loved. Kids can sometimes be mean to other kids just because they look or sound different, so the moral of a film like "Shrek" is a truly useful one for them to learn. Not only does the film show that Shrek just wants love, but that he DESERVES it, in spite of his obvious, uh, grossness.
Third, the vocal talent really gives their all to these characters, making them as well-rounded as the animation. Myers is blustery and bluff as Shrek. Cameron Diaz, who I often find a bit overbearing in live-action films, here is actually a very funny and endearing presence. Lithgow by now can do plummy English villains in his sleep, but he still has fun with Farquaad, and Eddie Murphy gets some of the biggest laughs of the film as the talking donkey ("The trick is getting him to shut up").
I have a lot of friends who have an irrational and unfortunate prejudice against animated films, somehow believing them less legitimate films than live-action. These are the same friends who queue up for teeniebopper junk like "Josie and the Pussycats", and I feel sorry for them. I urge anyone who hasn't had a chance to check out "Shrek" to give it a look. Believe me, it's not just for kids. And for anyone who has seen it, I have just one word:
Freddy Got Fingered (2001)
Not nearly as horrible as you've been led to believe
Comedy is perhaps the most subjective of all forms of entertainment. Judy Carter, in her wonderfully insightful "Stand-Up Comedy: The Book", summed it up best: "Some people will laugh at a guy slipping on a banana peel. Some people will only laugh at Hitler slipping on a banana peel." What kills with one crowd will die with the next, and no two people will laugh at the same thing for the same reason. Comedy, in many ways, says more about the laughers than the comedians themselves, and it is no wonder that comedy shop talk is filled with violent images ("If I don't bomb, I'm gonna murder that audience"). Comedy, to put it mildly, is DANGEROUS.
"Freddy Got Fingered", Tom Green's scabrous black comedy, illustrates this principle to a T. Since his earliest days on Canadian cable-access television, Green has based his career on pushing the envelope. Like Andy Kaufman, his bizarre stunts (many involving animal carcasses and the sexual humiliation of his parents) are primarily about the reaction of both their hapless victims and US, the audience; if you don't step back and consider how you're taking this humor, and why, you're not really getting the whole Green experience. "Freddy" carries this sensibility into a fictional format, giving us the strange tale of a man who lives his life as an experiment in riling people up.
Gord Brody (Green) is a young aspiring cartoonist who fails miserably in his attempt to break into the Hollywood big time. He is forced to move back home with his parents, setting off a titanic battle of wills with his stentorian oaf of a father (Rip Torn), an escalating conflict that involves accusations of child molestation, sausages on strings, elephant penises, horse penises, Green's penis, and really badly made cheese sandwiches.
Of course, all of this story nonsense is just that: nonsense. It serves no function but to provide Green and co-writer Derek Harvie with a framework for grotesque, deliberately shocking set pieces, many of which work surprisingly well. There's a brief sojourn at a stud farm, where Gord lives out an apparently lifelong fantasy, wagging a horse's genitals while yelling "I'm a farmer!" like a drunken barbarian. In another scene, Gord delivers a baby, ripping the bloody umbilical cord with his teeth. He picks up a wheelchair-bound girlfriend (Marisa Coughlin) who gets her jollies by being caned in the legs with a bamboo stick. And there's the wonderful little boy who spends the whole movie getting accidentally brutalized, hit by cars and running into airplane propellers, always with much blood and flying viscera.
Now I know this may not sound that funny, and indeed, "Freddy" has gotten the most dastardly reviews that I think I have ever seen for a major release. Critics don't just hate "Freddy"; they seem personally hurt by the film, as if Green had made the picture just to upset them and get their goat. What they don't seem willing to acknowledge is that Green made the film for EXACTLY that reason, and is getting exactly the reaction he wants. Therefore, his film can be regarded as something of a great success.
Personally, I agree with many of the critics who have described "Freddy" as surrealist. There is no attempt to integrate this action into anything resembling the real world. Gord is not a human being, but rather a collection of characteristics. Green plays him as a bizarrely aggressive man-child, a mishmash of helplessly repeated words and phrases, slack-jawed willful stupidity, and screaming, utterly pointless hysterics. Frankly, I admire this approach to the characterization. After seeing so many recent comedies ruined by the filmmakers' need to make their characters both laughable and likeable (most recently with the stultifying "Joe Dirt"), it is refreshing to see Green so willing to come off as annoying, hateful, cruel, UNLIKEABLE. This lack of relatability allows us to laugh at him without feeling like we're also laughing at ourselves.
I am not making the claim, as some on this page have, that "Freddy Got Fingered" is any kind of masterpiece. Green's direction is not the equal of his acting bravery. The film suffers from too many muddy visuals, and many moments just lie there on the screen, wriggling when they should fly. Still, the film does what it is supposed to. Half the time you're laughing, the other half just staring at the screen in goggle-eyed shock. You may hate "Freddy", you may love it, but either way, you have to admit that you've never seen anything like it before.
Along Came a Spider (2001)
Does What A Thriller Should, No More, No Less
"Along Came A Spider" works. It may suffer from one plot twist too many, it may borrow liberally from other pictures, it may have narrative holes you could run a horse race through, but in spite of all that, it WORKS. And as everyone knows, that is about the highest compliment a film like this can be paid.
Directed by Lee Tamahori, "Along Came a Spider" hits the ground running with a bravura sequence in which a federal sting goes horribly wrong and a good agent dies. Det. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), the leader of the sting, goes into brooding isolation, but a year later, the daughter of a U.S. congressman (Michael Moriarty) is kidnapped from her prestigious Washington boarding school by a brilliant madman, and Cross, a mental wizard with the ability to see into the mind of the maddest psychopath, is the only one who can track the criminal's M.O. and save the girl.
Standard thriller territory, and it's given more or less standard treatment, albeit with a fair share of stylistic spark and energy. Tamahori does a good job choreographing his action set pieces, particularly that shattering opening and a nifty cat-and-mouse chase that closes out the picture. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti gives the film a dark, brooding visual richness, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes another thunderously effective thriller score.
The acting is also generally strong across the board. Morgan Freeman.. what can one say? I honestly cannot think of another modern actor who has done such consistently high-quality work. Granted, Cross does not seem like a role that would overly tax a top-notch thespian like Freeman, but he doesn't sell it short either, giving the character his full, commanding force. He is the tough, solid center that really elevates "Along Came A Spider" above pulp territory. Michael Wincott plays the psycho (as naturally he would; what else is Michael Wincott going to play in a film?), and gives it his gravelly-voiced best, making us hate this guy just as much as we should. Monica Potter is fine as the young security officer helping Cross track the fiend, but I was constantly distracted by the fact that her voice sounds EXACTLY LIKE JULIA ROBERTS! I swear, it sounded like she'd been dubbed. Am I the only one who noticed this? Probably, so I'll drop it.
If there's any real complaint to be had with "Along Came A Spider" (aside from my weird personal difficulties with Monica Potter's voice), it is an age-old one for a thriller: script problems. Screenwriter Marc Moss keeps things moving nicely, and there are some clever moments throughout, but the film also raises unanswered questions. What was the purpose of the weird Lindbergh website the kidnapper sets up? When will they learn that internet-related plot devices just don't work in films? What was the point of the Russian kid who seems to play such a big role in the middle portion of the picture? Why did Moss feel the need to crib his most exciting sequence, a footchase with the maniac leading Cross through Washington via cell phone, from "Dirty Harry"? Granted, I haven't read the novel by James Patterson upon which this film was based, so I may not be casting blame in the right place. But Patterson didn't write this script, so maybe I am.
As I mentioned before, however, all of this largely doesn't matter. In the moment, while it's unfurling in front of you, the film's fast pace, engaging performances, and visual polish keep you intrigued, and allow you to overlook the plot's more outrageous contrivances and awkward reversals. "Along Came A Spider" is not a perfect thriller, but brother..it WORKS.
Joe Dirt (2001)
A lesson in how NOT to write a comedy
For anyone with an interest in storytelling, and comedy writing in particular, "Joe Dirt" should prove an interesting subject for study. First-time director Dennie Gordon joins forces with screenwriters Fred Wolf and David Spade (who also plays the film's title role) to give us a feature-length lesson in how to produce a comedy that is virtually laugh-free. Apparently it's very simple: just a few fundamental character and plot misfires, and voila! Unfunny comic gold!
Joe Dirt is perhaps the saddest sack in America. A hopelessly out-of-touch piece of poor white trash, Joe favors acid-washed jeans, hair-band T-shirts with cut-off sleeves, and a fluffy mullet wig (it covers an exposed brain pan, and he's been wearing it since he was a baby). He is currently a janitor at an L.A. radio station, but this is just the latest pit-stop on a sprawling, country-wide search for his parents, who abandoned him at the Grand Canyon when he was eight years old. During his quixotic travels, Joe befriends a Native American fireworks merchant (Adam Beach), almost becomes a mass murderer's latest victim, becomes an American cult hero, and gets a lot of crap dumped all over his overblown hairdo. Literally.
Good raw material for a comedy here. From the good-natured "Hee Haw", the foibles of backwards white America have been a great source of humor for years, and from the first scene, with Spade tooling down Sunset in his ugly two-tone beater, waving at chicks and totally oblivious to his own ridiculousness, "Joe Dirt" seems to be gearing up to give us a rootin'-tootin' time.
But then what happens? As little Joe goes on his search for his folks, he is constantly set upon by bullies who beat him up, pick on his clothes, and generally treat him like a loser. He pines pathetically for a ripe young country lass (Brittany Daniel), sulks over the miserable lot he has been left by his abandonment, and at one point even contemplates suicide. In other words, we're supposed to take this guy SERIOUSLY. We're supposed to (shudder) CARE about him! Gordon, Spade, and Wolf are clearly hoping we'll be inspired by the way Joe rallies against all of his obstacles, both self-generated and imposed on him by his sorry circumstances, and cheered by his ability to elevate himself above his station and become a true man of honor.
WRONG! We want to watch this clownish loser to fail! We would ENJOY it! Or we could, if the filmmakers had gone the right way with the character. The central problem with "Joe Dirt" is that Joe seems to be ASHAMED of who he is. He knows he's a loser, he realizes he's ridiculous. It's not funny to watch a clown who knows he's a clown; it's like he's sitting in the audience with us, shaking his head at his own pathetic state.
Think for a moment about the rollicking, rip-roaring comedy that "Joe Dirt" could have been if the filmmakers had pushed their instincts in the opposite direction. Imagine Joe even more comically grotesque: play up the white-trash stuff more, the incessant reading of Auto Trader magazine, the intimations of incest, the love of gaudy '80s hair metal. What's more, make him absolutely, utterly IN LOVE WITH HIMSELF. In love with his crappy car, in love with his grotesque sideburns, in love with his low taste in all things. Who needs a character who thinks he's as pathetic as we do? It would be much more fun to watch an UNREPETANT ridiculous loser maniac. As last year's "Me Myself & Irene" already proved, it's virtually impossible to make a comedy in which we're supposed to laugh with contempt at characters we are later meant to take seriously and (gag!) care about.
I don't care if Joe finds his parents. I don't want to see him getting his scrawny butt kicked by liquored-up country boys. I don't even want to see him in the country, period! Put him in the CITY, where he's a one-of-a-kind specimen, where he can really do some damage. Have him be the one kicking butt! Don't wimp out on the incest jokes! Crystal meth in the basement! A beat-up Marshall amp instead of a living room chair! Heck, make his dad a Klansman! Go nuts! Make us HATE this guy! Then we'll laugh at everything you heap on him! Then he's really a loser, and we can LOVE him being a loser, instead of wanting him to win. Then I'd laugh.
I don't mean to get so fired up over this, but I see comedy after comedy doing this, trying to get us to laugh at a character we're later supposed to spin around and root for. The reason "Dumb and Dumber" was one of the funniest films of recent years is because Peter and Bobby Farrelly did not sell out their characters by ever making us take them seriously; the integrity of their idiocy was maintained to the last frame, and we were able to laugh loud and long as they constantly shot their own legs out from under themselves. Sadly, as "Irene" indicates, it's a lesson they have forgotten, and "Joe Dirt" represents just another film that follows suit, another picture with the right idea and the wrong execution.
Admittedly, "Joe Dirt" has one great moment, a sight gag that made me laugh so loud I was ashamed of myself (granted, this may be because I was the only person in the theatre who laughed). In making up fliers to inquire about his parents, Joe describes them rather badly to the sketch artist. The result: his mother's drawing looks like exactly like "the Night Stalker", Richard Ramirez, complete with pentagram on "her" palm. This joke comes completely out of the blue, and has a gratifyingly nasty charge sorely lacking from the rest of "Joe Dirt". And now that you know the money gag, go rent "Dumb and Dumber" again instead of shelling out seven bucks for this dud. Comedy is nothing if it lacks the courage of its convictions.
A work of art about an artist at work
Jackson Pollock is the painter I most frequently hear people cite when making a comment that modern art is "not really art". They examine his work, with its furious slashes of paint, its drips and dribbles of color, and they haughtily declare, "I could do that," or, even worse, "It doesn't MEAN anything!" They fail to grasp that the key to appreciating modern art is not to figure out what the ARTIST is trying to say, but to stand back, examine the work, and see what it says to YOU.
Ed Harris' "Pollock" is a film that understands this. We do not get lengthy sermons here where the artist explains the meaning of his work to a suddenly enlightened multitude. In fact, we often get the sense that Pollock himself doesn't know the definitive meaning of his paintings. He just stands before a blank canvas, begins spattering the paint...and he knows in his gut that it's right.
"Pollock" is a more or less straightforward biopic. We open with Pollock (Harris), already painting and already in the grip of alcoholism, bemoaning Picasso's success while struggling to make a name for himself. He meets Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a fellow up-and-coming artist, who soothes his savage beast, and gives him the outer-world stability he needs to free his mind and his muse. Still, Pollock often disappears for days at a time, showing up later filthy and ragged, and his demons follow him even to the country where he and Krasner take up residence on a farm. Just as his artistry is reaching its peak, his mind begins to fall apart. His fear that he is a "phony" begins to take him over, and he eventually becomes a self-pitying, besotted wreck. At this point, we're just waiting for the moment when Pollock hands himself to his doom. We know it's coming...and I think he did, too.
Harris directs with unpretentious confidence, delineating the world of the mid-century New York art scene in a few broad, sure strokes. Critics alternately stroke and scorn the artists, patrons demand an artist's soul and sometimes body in exchange for support. The film was shot on a low budget, but conveys the right sense of period through simple placement of a few well-chosen period signifiers (clothes, cars, etc.). It's convincing at every moment, and it feels right.
Harris' Pollock is one of the actor's finest creations, a raging mass of neuroses who doesn't use art to escape his problems, but rather to bring them to the surface and out through his brush. Watching him move around a flat canvas, dripping and splashing paint with fervent intensity, we realize that only when Pollock's demons are out in the open can he truly feel liberated. When they're on the inside, bottled up, that's when they claw and wound. Harris is probably the most convincing painter I've seen on the screen; we see him with his paint cans and brushes, and he just looks like he's really creating this work.
He also handles Pollock's fiery mood swings with skill, most strikingly in a Thanksgiving dinner where he confronts a documentary filmmaker he feels is making him look ridiculous. Front and center in the supporting cast is Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Academy Award for her work here. Harden's Lee Krasner is a tough-talking Brooklyn-type broad, but she also possesses deep reserves of emotion and love, and we watch sadly as Pollock slowly drains them dry. Her strength is the only thing keeping him tethered to sanity, and when she finally leaves him, we know that the end is near.
Other standouts in the supporting cast include Jeffrey Tambor as a haughty critic, Harris' wife Amy Madigan (a great actress we don't see nearly enough of) as an imperious early Pollock patron, and, in an amusing cameo, Val Kilmer as bizarre fellow artist Wilhelm de Kooning.
"Pollock" doesn't attempt to give us an explanation for the neuroses that haunted its title character, and this is both to its credit and its detriment. We are spared the pat pop philosophizing that harms many biopics ("I paint because Momma didn't love me enough!"), but at the same time, we feel all the more helpless when Pollock rages. We don't know what's hurting him, so we don't know how to help. We are almost relieved when the inevitable comes. It leaves the film feeling unfinished, but hey, if it's an unsatisfying ending for us, think how it must have felt to Pollock.
Ed Harris has made an impressive feature directing debut with "Pollock". It's a subject he clearly feels passionately about (he nurtured the project for ten years), and this pays off in a deeply felt, intensely realized biopic. After you see this film, go out and look at some Pollock paintings. You may find them speaking to you in exciting ways you never imagined before.
Out there, out there, WAY OUT THERE
In these tame, toothless cinematic times, one has to give credit to Twentieth Century Fox for even releasing a film like "Monkeybone", Henry Selick's epically bizarre fantasy-comedy. Like a Ralph Bakshi nightmare without the hardcore animal sex, Selick's film is strange, surreal, slightly disturbing, and, at certain intervals, fine and clever fun.
Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is an example of the healing power of art, having battled back from depression and almost paralyzing nightmares by channelling his horrors into an anarchic cartoon alter ego named Monkeybone, who wreaks havoc through the pages of an underground comic book. Stu's comic is now being turned into a cartoon series for TV, complete with a raft of merchandising, but he's still not happy, and it gets worse when he is in a violent car accident and gets transported to Downtown, a bizarre limbo world between earth and what lies beyond. Here, Monkeybone is real, a devilish prankster nightclub emcee, and when he finds out that there's a way back to the real world, he does some con work to get out into Stu's body and wreak some earthly havoc. It's now up to Stu's soul, trapped Downtown, to get out and reclaim his body before Monkeybone turns the world into an army of out-of-control id-monsters like himself.
As you can probably already tell, this film is not your standard cookie-cutter Hollywood product. The plot alone is bizarre enough to warrant a look, but for fans of monster makeup, special effects, and art direction, "Monkeybone" will qualify as a must-see. Selick cut his directorial chops on "The Nightmare Before Christmas", and here, the world he creates is like a live-action mutation of that same bizarre stop-motion boneyard. Freakish creatures crowd the boardwalks of Downtown, scythe-wielding reapers swoop the skies on gray-shrouded motorcycles, and the way back to earth is a circus strength-testing machine that shoots souls up through the gaping mouth of a floating Abraham Lincoln coin bank. Animation rubs shoulders with live action (the Monkeybone character himself is a computer graphic, voiced by John Turturro), and virtually every shot contains something bizarre and new to marvel over. If nothing else, "Monkeybone" is further proof that special effects technicians today can do just about anything.
Unfortunately, the story is such that we find ourselves hard-pressed to care about what's going on. Stu is a lumpy sad sack before his accident; he's much more fun when Monkeybone takes over, leering in a bad goatee and shaking his booty at his confused girlfriend (Bridget Fonda). The plot to run riot over the world is dashed off more or less as an afterthought, and there's just not enough juice here in terms of the characters to really pull us into their dilemma. What's worse, as amazing as Downtown and its denizens are to see, nothing really happens there. It's almost like a big celluloid tattoo; fun to look at, but with nothing really behind it at all.
The actors do what they can to redeem the material. Fraser ceaselessly amazes me with his guileless bravery. This is a man utterly unafraid to look silly, stupid, or flat-out weird, and "Monkeybone" tests these abilities to the breaking point. His performance here is not as inspired as his work in last year's "Bedazzled", which gave him seven characters to play, but he has fun, especially with the frantic final act, when Monkeybone has taken over Stu's body. Dave Foley gives some prissy snap to his role as Stu's agent, and Rose McGowan proves that, even in whiskers as a cat-faced Downtown barmaid, she's still one of the sexiest women in movies. The surprise here, however, is Chris Kattan, who plays a recently deceased gymnast reanimated when Stu's soul needs a host body to battle with Monkeybone. Picture a corpse jolted back to life with entirely too intense electricity, and that's the effect of Kattan's riotous physical comedy here. Not to mention the fact that he's being chased by doctors, eager for the donor organs that keep plopping out of the autopsy slit in his stomach.
Overall, I would say "Monkeybone" is an interesting failure. It offers a lot of great visual moments, and is worth seeing once for Fraser and Kattan, but it's one of those experiences that leaves you feeling undernourished at the end. There's nothing to hold onto, nothing to take away from the experience. Still, even though the result is no masterpiece, I have to admire the efforts of Selick and Co. Their biggest mistake? They should have thought smaller. It's not a great film, but "Monkeybone", I think, would have made one hell of an album cover.