Movie Reviews by Paul Preston & Steven Lewis
Reviews in alphabetical order
AS GOOD AS IT GETS – ***1/2
This movie is bizarre because, while judged overall its story is shmaltzy and unbelievable, nevertheless each individual scene plays absolutely convincingly and feels very real. It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s the greatness of the actors overcoming an under-thought out script, or whether it’s that the script concentrated solely on crafting great scenes one after the other, but not so much on coming up with a convincing through-line. Whatever. All I know is that this is one of the most entertaining pictures I’ve ever seen, extremely funny and quite emotionally affecting. And it all progresses from a fundamental premise that I would never buy in a two-minute pitch meeting. Pitches be damned, I guess, because the film works anyway.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Nicholson shows real range here – sure, he gets to be the sarcastic curmudgeon we’ve all come to expect, but his character also has moments of fear, repression and vulnerability which he brings off equally well. My problem with this character (and the “problem” only exists as I think about him afterward, not while I’m actually watching the movie) is in his conception: he seems to be whatever the writers want him to be at that moment, with no particular consistency from scene to scene so when he supposedly “changes” at the end, we’re left to think, “Change? This guy’s been changing through the entire movie!” And yet, Nicholson’s performance makes it not matter quite so much.
Helen Hunt is a revelation in this movie – she nails every scene she’s in, whether she’s forced to be witty, embarrassed, angry, defiant, or emotionally overwhelmed. She keeps Jack on his toes, and they work off each other brilliantly. Also, I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but Greg Kinnear was great as Simon, the gay neighbor. (It was also nice to see director Harold Ramis – the third Ghostbuster, after all – in front of the camera again, if only briefly, in a small part as a doctor.)
What more can I say? Good comedy, good love story, great acting. None of it, in the end, is very convincing, but if you just focus on the individual moments and not on the grand design – a task made easy by the wonderful writing and playing – it’s very easy to like As Good As It Gets.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH – **1/2
I remember when I first heard the premise for this movie, I wanted to just get up and cheer – it sounded so great! A guy discovers a secret portal into the head of John Malkovich, allowing people to experience what it is like to be the famous (but not too famous) actor for 15 minutes at a clip, before being dumped out onto the New Jersey turnpike. Bizarre, surreal, and totally original. Which is why it’s such a shame that the movie ends up using this device in service of a rather lame romantic triangle between John Cusack, Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz, none of whom create a very interesting or likable character to begin with. The movie could have explored the nature of celebrity, or the psychological need people have to “get inside” someone else’s head, or to live vicariously through others. All these things are touched on to some extent, but they take a backseat to what becomes essentially a boring sex romp.
Still, there are some wonderful things here. The 7 1/2th floor is an invention of Monty Pythonesque lunacy, and it provides the film with a hilarious visual motif. The actual scenes of entering the portal and being inside Malkovich’s head are shot with great deadpan brilliance. And Malkovich himself is totally amazing – wonderfully droll as “himself” and then suitably off the wall as his body becomes overtaken by forces beyond his control. He truly deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year (just think how great the acceptance speech would be!)
Of course, the fact that in a movie entitled “Being John Malkovich,” John Malkovich himself could be considered only a SUPPORTING actor is entirely the problem. I wanted more of him, and less of the dopey trio mentioned above. The movie frustrated me – it could have been so good, and settled for being ordinary. Ultimately, the things that are good about it do make it worth seeing, but just barely. And don’t expect any comic masterpiece; all the critics that hailed it as such were talking about what the film could have been, not what it is.
The nineties were not a good time to be a Steve Martin fan; the last movie he did which showed any spark or inventiveness was “L.A. Story” and that was nearly ten years ago. Not surprisingly, that also happens to be the last time he acted from a script which he himself had written. He was content to spend the rest of the decade embodying flat, middle of the road characters in flat, middle of the road movies (“Father of the Bride parts I and II”, “Housesitter”, “The Out-of-Towners”) while his creative muse sought other outlets in the theater (his play “Picasso At the Lapin Agile” premiered in 1993) and in the form of humorous essays (like those collected in his new book, “Pure Drivel”). These last projects indicate that Martin’s surreal and inventive mind has not gone dry, but he seemed to have lost his confidence in film as a forum for communicating his unusual gags and ideas. Would we ever get another original screen comedy from Steve Martin?
On that score, “Bowfinger” is both good and bad news. The good news, of course, is that the script is a Martin original. The bad news is it’s clear he has been out of the practice for too long. Or rather, perhaps, he’s worked in so many plodding and monotonous comedies now that it’s blunted his style. For, the actual idea behind “Bowfinger” is suitably off the wall: a desperate, Z-list Hollywood producer (Martin), failing to get major action star Kit Ramsey (Murphy) to appear in his latest bargain-basement film, decides to shoot it anyway and incorporate Ramsey against his will by having a guerrilla crew follow him around and film him on the sly. However, the actual execution winds up being uninspired. The material here needs to be pitched at a heightened, absurdist level if it’s going to work – something in the spirit of “The Naked Gun” or, to reference Martin’s own work, “The Man With Two Brains.” It needs to be clear the filmmakers are aware that the plan here could never really work: all kinds of practical problems are involved, from the ability to get good shots of Ramsey without proper camera and lighting setups of him, as well as the need to get him to sign a consent form – not to mention the huge script problem of working his character substantially into the story when the shots they get of him are only few and far between.
Now, I can hear some people saying, “But it’s a comedy! You’re not supposed to think of all those very practical concerns while you’re watching it.” I agree – so the fact that I DID think of them tells me the film wasn’t working, or I wouldn’t have gotten so caught up by them. It’s because it never really establishes the right tone, so we don’t know how seriously to take these people, their dreams and desires. On one level “Bowfinger” is a pure cartoon, just like Martin’s “The Jerk” or “Sgt. Bilko”. Yet, there’s just enough pathos and desperation sketched in so that we kind of think of him in more human terms – like Ed Wood, say, or Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. For whatever reason, the combination just doesn’t work, and leaves you with the idea that the filmmakers just couldn’t decide what kind of film they were making.
It doesn’t help that Martin is actually pretty lame here as a performer. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so tired and apathetic. He valiantly tries to do an impersonation of his normal high-energy character, but it just falls flat. And when you catch performers trying to “do” themselves, it’s a dangerous sign. I can’t honestly recall one single thing he personally did or said in this movie that made me laugh. As someone who’s worshipped Martin practically from the cradle, it was a pretty dispiriting experience.
So should you see this movie? I dunno. It’s not a bomb or anything – just kind of average. But considering how lunatic the premise is, average here seems kind of like failure. One thing’s for sure, though: it contains one of Eddie Murphy’s all-time greatest performances – maybe his best EVER. I’m not talking about his part as Kit Ramsey – that actually draws on the loud-mouthed, overbearing side of Murphy that I think has gotten real old and real annoying. No, it’s his part as Jiff, the sweet and slow-witted Ramsey look-alike that Bowfinger uses as a body double. The look and tone he finds to portray this character are just priceless – he draws howls just from his gestures and his reactions. It’s your standard geek character, but so wonderfully inhabited and underplayed that it feels totally fresh (and works better than his more hammy and obvious approach in “The Nutty Professor”).
Is it enough to recommend the movie? Hmmm. . . tough call. It really is a great part, yet the rest of the film does not support it very well. How about wait for a bargain night at your video store – or better yet, just catch on television when it finally airs.
THE CABLE GUY – ***
If you don’t like Jim Carrey already, you won’t like The Cable Guy.
If you do like Jim Carrey you still may not like The Cable Guy. I would say, if you are one of those that can truly appreciate that all Carrey’s roles rely to a remarkable degree upon the venting of anger – and can further appreciate the possible subtext of that – well, now you’re moving into the type of territory where it may be possible for you to enjoy this movie.
Let me state my position up front: I love this movie. When it came out I saw it five times in the theater, once even staying through two showings. To this day, I still do lines and bits from it with my friends. I truly think it is Jim Carrey’s greatest creation to date (and I’m a guy who thinks almost all his creations are pretty special). And yet I’m perfectly aware that, at the script level at least the movie has some fairly major problems, and that it was not designed to appeal to everybody. In fact, I’d say it may well have been meant to bite the hand that feeds it, to snarl its contemtpt to anyone who got close.
But snarling contempt has made Jim Carrey what he is today – especially in the Ace Ventura movies – and so really how different is it? In fact, for anyone who is a fan of Carrey and says the cable guy character is too violent, too angry, too downright hostile – well, they better go back and scrupulously examine just what drew them to Carrey in the first place.
Make no mistake about it, the Cable Guy as played by Carrey is truly a psychotic creation. And when comedy veers into the psychotic it is not always on firm ground. Here, though, I’d say Carrey himself goes through his stages of madness with absolute precision – first pest, then mild irritant, then major league hanger-on and finally all out nut job – and does it absolutely brilliantly, being both hilarious and truly scary at the same time. Even as you’re afraid of what he is going to do, you can’t stop laughing at the sheer lunatic invention that he brings to the role. Being simultaneously amusing and terrifying is a hard trick to bring off, and few would even attempt it, much less bring it off successfully. (As a comparison, I think Jack Nicholson in The Shining was really funny – but his funniness only served to undercut, not complement, his scariness).
Also here, for the first time, Carrey is working with a director who is just as inventive as he is. Ben Stiller brings a great cutting-edge visual style to the film, playing up the darkness while also accentuating well Carrey’s over the top cartoonishness. Again, that is a tough double line to have to tow, and he does it well. I really hope he gets a chance to direct more in the future, because I think he’s really good (and he’s a better director than he is an actor. He had a certain low key charm in “Flirting With Disaster” and “There’s Something About Mary” but I’m getting really tired of seeing him in films – he’s just not interesting enough. He belongs BEHIND the camera, where he’s great).
To sum up, if I were a teacher grading The Cable Guy as a final project, I’d give both its star and its director an A+ but its screenwriter only a B-. It’s just not as well thought out as it might have been, but what’s good about the movie is truly out of this world good. If you have a taste for dark comedy and like Jim Carrey even a little, this one’s for you.
What the Batman movies SHOULD have been like
Darkman came out the summer after the first Tim Burton Batman movie, and I remember thinking “If only. . .” That is, if only Sam Raimi – the genius behind Darkman – had been handed the reins to the Batman franchise. Oh, it could have been AWESOME! Burton’s Batman had a great look and production design, but Darkman’s got everything else: a brooding and truly tragic hero, whose heroism is greatened by the fact that he is a mere mortal and must rise above huge physical and psychological scars. And yet he’s also crafty and ingenious, continually thwarting the villains with brains and quick thinking moreso than with his fists (although he does that too). Also, the villain here – played by Larry Drake of L.A Law fame (or infamy, as the case may be) – is one of the greatest villains of all time. Not because he’s so humorous and enjoyable, but because he so resolutely ISN’T. The notion of the villain as jokester and entertainer is beginning to get a bit tired in modern movies, particularly in the Batman series where the bad guys are always the real stars. And yet, how threatening is that to an audience? If the bad guy is such a damn hoot, why should we root for the hero? Darkman doesn’t make this mistake: Durant (as played by Drake) is one of the most sinister, sadistic, and purely evil creations to come out of a comic-book styled movie. No mad cackling or over the top hamminess for him – just pure, cold-eyed evil. And yet not crazy, but rather crafty; in other words, a formidable opponent – and so the overall struggle is one with tremendous rooting interest for the audience.
And the way this picture is shot! It is truly a marvel to look at. There is a real understanding here of how a comic book works visually, as well as thematically. The camera is often tilted at odd angles for sinister – or sometimes just amusing – effect. The violence and action sequences are all portrayed in broad, gaudy strokes (faces flying into the camera, loud explosions, and above all speed Speed SPEED!) and yet use their cartoonishness to soften, rather than deny, the inherent pain and sadism involved. Many have objected to the violence in this movie, but there’s really no more here than there is in an average action film – and considerably less than in recent Jerry Bruckheimer garbage like The Rock and Con Air. The reason Darkman SEEMS so much more violent is that it refuses to soft-peddle it; when characters here get hurt, you FEEL it, in a very visceral way, rather than watching mindless explosions which make no attempt to connect them to any real pain or suffering. This, I believe, actually makes Darkman a much more humane movie than most of its counterparts: it displays just how sick and ugly criminal violence is, instead of glamorizing it by making it seem “cool” or “hip” (are you listening out there, Quentin?). Because Peyton Westlake/Darkman is a victim of this type of brutality, we root for him and feel for him in a deeper way than we would an ordinary crime fighter or superhero, and this lends the film a powerful undertow of tragedy which disallows us the simple knee-jerk euphoria at the bad guys being defeated. No matter what happens, we are clearly told, Peyton’s life is irreparably damaged, and he will be forced to “wear” the scars of sadistic villainy until the day he dies. In other words, for all the goofy pop-art fun and sheer adrenaline kick of the movie, there’s no “happy ending” here; how many other popcorn action films would be so brave?
Visually and thematically, then, this is one of the greatest pictures ever made – certainly within the action/superhero genre. Actually, along with Robocop (a movie which shares a similar cartoonishness and bleakness of tone) I think it’s the best “comic book” movie ever. Interesting how both those films deal with characters invented specifically for the screen – yet who APPEAR to be straight out of the pages of a graphic novel. Maybe Hollywood is best when it’s coming up with its own superheroes, instead of just plundering the DC and Marvel universes. Or perhaps it all comes down to the director; most of them don’t seem to understand what makes comic books special and interesting, and so therefore can communicate none of their zip to an audience. However, with Sam Raimi set to direct the new Spiderman movie, this trend might be about to change in a major way.
Stay tuned. . .
DONNIE BRASCO – ****
I’ve seen this movie three times now, and every time I’ve seen it I’ve come to like it MORE than the previous time – which is fairly incredible. I definitely liked it well enough the first time, but upon the third viewing I became convinced: this isn’t just a good, solid movie – it’s one of the greatest of all time.
“Donnie Brasco” shows the cheap and petty underside of mob life, a place that movies don’t often take us, due to their desire to create colorful and/or “cool” characters out of hoods. Not here. “Donnie” shows a bunch of frustrated grunts, hanging out in the local grease joint, hatching schemes to make any kind of buck in order to pay off their bosses. It’s sad and pathetic – and the attempts of Pacino’s character to puff himself up (as well as the life he leads) into some kind of mythic significance is just unutterably sad. It’s the “Death of a Salesman” of mob movies.
And that in itself would be quite enough. But in fact, the film is also something else, something equally gripping and profound: it’s maybe the best “undercover cop” movie I’ve ever seen. That is, not only does it gives us a good inside view of the actual mechanics and legwork involved (wearing a wire, reporting to superiors, etc.) but also the effect that staying perpetually “in character” can have on the undercover cop’s personal sense of self. Johnny Depp’s character here is torn between his two separate identities: that of Joe Pistone, upstanding cop and family man, and the slimy and amoral “Donnie Brasco” that he is forced to live out every day as. His loyalty also becomes torn between his superiors, who stand loftily and sanctimoniously above him, and the everyday mob characters that he spends his time with and comes to feel a closeness for – particularly Lefty (Pacino). The relationship the movie builds between these two men is one of the strongest and most tender (while still understated) that I’ve ever seen in any film. And the conflict that it brings about in Donnie is made very real and poignant to the audience.
Also helping to make Donnie’s dilemma effective are the scenes between he and his wife, played (perfectly) by Anne Heche. I bring this up because there might be a tendency to view these domestic scenes as filler, since they take us away from the main action, and are pretty touchy-feely to boot (the quality of writing in them, I’ll admit, is not as consistently high as the other scenes in the movie – though never less than competent). However, I find them just as necessary and vital to the film as all the mafia stuff: those scenes add incalculably to the composite picture of Johnny Depp’s character, and how it is being pulled this way and that by the call of duty and the pull of his heart and conscience.
A FINAL NOTE: Concerning Al Pacino’s performance here; it’s been lauded as one of his best, but I’m not so sure. The CHARACTER of Lefty is definitely one of the greatest he has ever been handed, but there’s not much subtlety to his portrayal. Rather, it’s of the hambone, “Hoo-Ha!” variety that has become his stock in trade (“Sea of Love” being the last time he created a fully three dimensional person on screen). However, what’s affecting and poignant is how the film USES that portrayal: we’re so used to seeing Pacino as the big boss, the head honcho – where his bluster is justified by his position – that to flip the formula on its head, and show him as the lowliest of the bottom feeders, yet still maintaining the same bluster, is tremendously jarring, in a sad kind of way. It’s as if we’re seeing the character of Lefty say to himself: “I’m a nobody, but maybe if I puff up enough and carry myself more like Al Pacino does in the movies, I can be seen as a somebody.” In this situation, is it the actor who’s creating the magic, or the filmmakers’ canny “use” of the actor, with all of his associations? I’m inclined to think the latter, but ultimately it doesn’t matter: the bottom line is, Lefty Ruggiero is one of the greatest characters in all of film, and his story will break your heart.
A great, great movie. I’m sure I’ll revisit it many more times through the years.
The charm and appeal of this film eludes me
I just don’t get it. Why make a film that celebrates and nearly canonizes a bad filmmaker? I’ve heard some say that it captures his buoyant enthusiasm and never-say-die spirit. Commendable qualities, to be certain. But it doesn’t change the fact that HE WAS A BAD FILMMAKER! And he wasn’t bad because he was reaching for something greater than he could achieve, or because he deliberately reveled in camp and bad taste for its own sake (like, say, John Waters). Nor was it true that he was unfairly labeled and vilified by the Hollywood establishment because he flew in the face of their conventions (as such, the association that’s made with Orsen Welles late in the movie is particularly laughable). No, the reason Ed Wood was bad was because he was just naturally inept. He had no idea how to appropriately construct a scene, how to direct actors, how to light a film set, how to. .. well, the list goes on and on. Basically, everything a director needs to know how to do – he didn’t have the first clue about.
What’s odd is that the film makes this abundantly clear. There’s no attempt to portray him as a closet genius or an ahead-of-his-time visionary. Indeed, the scenes of him directing on a movie set have a kind of ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch quality about them, as we watch disaster breaking out all around, and Ed blissfully sitting in the center of it, thinking it’s all great. If the movie was constructed as an elaborate joke – a parody of a “serious” biography by the use of a laughably inappropriate subject – it might have worked (although even then, it would be a cheap joke – making fun of Ed Wood is about as bold as making fun of Pia Zadora).
That certainly seems to be the movie Johnny Depp thought they were making – his portrayal of Ed is so cartoonish and one-dimensional, with exaggerated snappy line deliveries straight out of a ’40s B-flick, that it’s a role Jon Lovitz – in full Pathological Liar mode (“Yeh, That’s the ticket!”) – could have done just as well. Director Tim Burton, though, as well as writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, want to find more here than just Ed’s ludicrousness. I know this is their intention not because they’ve found it, but because the film is a leaden bore – so that tells me that it wants to be “important.” First of all, it’s filmed in black and white and we all know that represents high “artistic” aspirations. Personally, I think a movie glaring with bright and tacky colors would be the more appropriate way to commemorate Ed Wood’s life. But then, I’m thinking of it as a comedy, and this film is serious, very very serious.
What it’s serious ABOUT, I have no idea. The cruel and unfortunate fate of the talentless? I must be alone in thinking it right that those lacking ability should fall to the bottom of their respective fields. Certainly Burton is not bemoaning the fact that Ed was not more successful in Hollywood: that it is precisely Wood’s enthusiasm and determination which are the qualities most in need to counteract the jadedness of the industry? My god, maybe that IS his point! But certainly there exist – and have existed – directors and creators of actual skill and talent who have possessed the exuberance attributed to Ed here. Why not focus on one of them? Why commend Ed Wood on his personal qualities when he was such a washout in the field where he chose to employ them?
I don’t know. Lots of people like this film. More power to them. Maybe someday someone will be able to explain its appeal to me in a way I can comprehend. All I know is that, at some point, I became impatient and frankly offended at having to sit through the exploits of a no-talent hack. Zeal and enthusiasm – yes, this movie convinced me that Ed Wood had them. But so, I’m told, does Charles Manson. And no one’s suggesting we should make a celebratory biopic of HIM.
Okay, okay – let me admit right off that I had no expectations for this film (it had been so universally panned) and saw it on the cheap merely to ogle Catherine Zeta-Jones for a few hours (does that make me a bad guy?) However, within a very short amount of time I became hooked – this is just a really entertaining story, well told, well shot, and totally enjoyable from start to finish. Implausible plot? Yeah sure, but what escapist movie isn’t, and the important thing is that the characters really believed in it, and so we did too. The heists in this movie were all meticulously thought out and grippingly presented – and the extended middle sequence where Connery is training Zeta-Jones is just really interesting. It reminded me, in a weird and distant way, of those Yoda-Luke Skywalker sequences in “The Empire Strikes Back”, and emphasizes how seldom Hollywood movies (particularly action ones) ever show anyone in the process of learning something: characters either know what they’re doing ahead of time, or pick up skills with alarming speed, usually in the heat of conflict.
Now, about that relationship between Connery and Zeta-Jones. “Entrapment” is no mere Grandpa romances the baby-sitter movie (like “Bulworth”, or “Six Days Seven Nights”, or just about any Woody Allen film) simply because the focus of their relationship is always the cat-and-mouse game of accomplices in crime (who don’t trust one another) not the mating dance of horny singles. Both stars are certainly attractive, of course, and the filmmakers know it and emphasize it, but the fundamental relationship takes its cue from Mac’s (Connery’s character) advice early in the film to the effect that there can be no romance between thieves. This advice is scrupulously followed in the film itself, keeping it free of an embarrassing romantic sub-plot, and thereby maintaining a sharp focus upon the story and action.
(If only the other heist film this past summer, the inferior but far more lavishly praised “The Thomas Crown Affair”, had stayed true to this maxim, we might have had more great sequences like the beginning and the ending, and been spared the long, looooong middle section where nothing happens save for Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan getting it on, improbably and boringly, in as many situations as possible.)
To sum up: tight plot, exciting action sequences, great looking stars, and some nifty twists and turns along the way – all without the curse of a boring and improbable romance slowing everything down. What are you waiting for? As long as you’re in a purely escapist mood, “Entrapment” is GREAT entertainment.
The greatest film comedy of all-time
This is not only the greatest comedy of all time but one of the best films ever, in any genre. What makes it so great, besides a stellar performance by Bill Murray (which is, hands down, his best screen work to date) is how perfectly the script has been worked out, down to the tiniest little details. The premise is a solid one – a man is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he learns how to become a better, less self-centered person. But it could have failed on so many levels: the built-in repetition factor could easily have sunk the film, and a very real danger existed that the situation would simply become as boring and infuriating to the audience as it is to the main character. Instead, the filmmakers – director Harold Ramis and his co-writer Danny Rubin, who came up with the original story – find several ingenious ways to ring changes upon the premise, and do a totally convincing job in mapping out the growth and development of the main character.
That character is a cruel and shallow Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors who is disgusted to find himself once again in Punxsatawney Pennsylvania to cover the dreaded (to him) groundhog day festival. By being forced to live the day again and again, amongst people he despises, he will have to come to terms with his own shallowness and lack of human connection. The film, then, is his quest for personal redemption and deliverance. If that sounds heavy to you, well . . . it is, sort of. While the film is clearly a comedy (and is very very funny), it does not hesitate to display the horror and desperation of Phil’s predicament. By the end, you FEEL for him, and have come to know him, in a way that just would not be possible if his situation was played only for laughs. If ever a movie wrung every last drop of greatness and potential out of its central premise, it is this one. If nothing else, the script should have been up for an Academy Award; it is – hands down – the best comedy script of the 90s.
Of course, probably the biggest concern is that the audience will enjoy Phil being a crumb much more than they will watching him become a nice guy, which would pretty much undercut the central theme of the movie. This is where Bill Murray’s amazing performance comes in to play, since he’s equally entertaining as a good-hearted and reformed man as he is as a jaded cynic. This is no mean accomplishment, and it’s absolutely essential for the movie’s success: if he came across as too nice, then we wouldn’t buy the character’s initial misanthropy, making the “transformation” a foregone conclusion; equally, if his change into a happier, more well-adjusted person wasn’t funny and enjoyable in its own right, then we’d walk away thinking “The movie had a great first hour – then it got boring as he started to change.” Either eventuality would have absolutely killed this picture.
Fortunately, Murray – perhaps unique among screen comics – has always been equally adept at working either side of the sweet / sour divide. He can just as easily be lovable as despicable, and get laughs doing both. I can’t really think of any other comic actor who can do this (Robin Williams is always relentlessly cheery; Steve Martin is funniest when he’s angriest; Jim Carrey couldn’t get laughs by being sweet and sincere if his life depended on it, etc.). Therefore, the movie is unthinkable without him. But it is also an absolute gift to him – no other film he has ever done has allowed him to show this much range as an actor while still letting him play to his strengths. Anyone who witnessed him trying to go dramatic in The Razor’s Edge, or to bring off a similar grump-turns-into-a-nice-guy premise in the atrocious Scrooged will know exactly what I mean.
To sum up, this is one of the best films ever, and belongs on that short list of works that are truly uplifting and heartwarming – but which EARN it. As “transformation” movies go, it’s right up there with the seasonal classics of Scrooge, the Grinch and George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” – all without the benefit of the Christmas season for its backdrop. In fact, one of the best things about Groundhog Day is that it might actually start a new trend – showing this film every year on TV in the wastes of February would be a good idea, when we could all really use a good cheering up!
This review contains spoilers
Before Frodo and Sam there was Juliet and Pauline.
We all know Peter Jackson. He’s that awesome director who was responsible for bringing Tolkien’s trilogy to the big screen. We also know that he is responsible for the (third times a charm) remake of “King Kong”. But do you really know Peter Jackson? Die hard fans do, but the rest of the second-rate movie goers do not. Allow me to introduce you to a Peter Jackson classic. A strange little biopic called “Heavenly Creatures”.
“During 1953 and 1954, Pauline Yvonne Parker kept diaries recording her friendship with Juliet Marion Hulme. This is their story. All diary entries are in Pauline’s own words.”
This is the opening statement before the movie begins. “Heavenly Creatures” is a very disturbing, sometimes comical film about unhealthy friendships. It takes place in New Zealand in the 1950’s and tells the story of Pauline (aka “Paul” or “Gina”) and Juliet (aka Deborah). Both girls attend Christchurch School for Girls. Pauline, first time role for native New Zealander Melanie Lynskey, is the introverted girl in school who’s a bit awkward and doesn’t have many friends, if any. Had she not met Juliet, I feel she would have pushed through her teenage years and come out okay on the other side. Juliet, a most brilliant performance by Kate Winslet, is the over-dramatic daughter of very successful parents who decide to settle in New Zealand for a bit. She is pretentious, falsely confident and disdainful of her peers and teachers. Pauline is fascinated by her and the girls quickly become friends. The girls are not only bright but somewhat damaged as well. Juliet’s parents seem to constantly abandon her when she is ill (she suffers from a recurrent respiratory illness) with the empty statement of “it’s for the good of your health”. Her fear of abandonment and wild imagination lead her to create an alternate reality where she can be safe and secure in the knowledge that no one can leave her when she is in that place (The Fourth World, as she calls it).
The girl’s friendship begins to tailspin after Juliet is hospitalized for Tuberculosis and they are unable to see each other for a few months. Pauline decides to write to Juliet as a fictional character named Charles who is the lord or prince of Juliet’s make believe kingdom, Borovnia. Juliet in turn writes as Charles’s love, Deborah. When Juliet is released from the hospital the girl’s attachment takes a dark and unnatural turn. To the outside world and more importantly their parents, they become withdrawn, angry, and seem to have fallen into love. This prompts Juliet’s father to confront Pauline’s parents and both agree the girls need to be separated. What happens following this decision is the final straw for Pauline and Juliet. Their madness consumes them, driving them to a final act of desperation. Murdering Pauline’s mother. The date was June 23, 1954. This is an excerpt from Pauline’s diary about the fateful event:
“We have worked it out carefully and are both thrilled by the idea.
“Naturally, we feel a trifle nervous, but the pleasure of anticipation is great.
“I shall not write the plan down here as I shall write it up when we carry it out (I hope).
June 20: “Afterwards we discussed our plans for moidering mother and made them a little clearer.
“Peculiarly enough, I have no qualms of conscience (or is it peculiar, we are so mad?)”
June 21: “I rose late and helped mother vigorously this morning.
“Deborah rang and we decided to use a rock in a stocking rather than a sandbag.
“We discussed the moider fully.
“I feel very keyed up as though I were planning a surprise party.
“Mother has fallen in with everything beautifully and the happy event is to take place to-morrow afternoon.
“So next time I write in this diary mother will be dead.
“How odd, yet pleasing: I have discussed various saints with her to-day as I thought it would be interesting to have her opinion.”
June 22: “The Day of the Happy Event: I am writing a little of this up in the morning before the death.
“I felt very excited and the ‘Night before Christmassy.’
“Last night, I didn’t have pleasant dreams though. I am about to rise.”
Peter Jackson and longtime collaborator and producer Jim Booth wanted desperately to tell a story about a friendship that went terribly wrong as opposed to all the tabloid fodder they were up against in researching for the film. Jackson and Booth performed a nationwide search for anyone who had been around the girls at the time of their mad friendship. This included former students, neighbors, friends, work colleagues etc. It was Pauline’s diary that allowed them insight to the intelligence and imagination that these two girls possessed. Most of the story came from Pauline’s diary, which she wrote in religiously.
I can honestly say that my teenage years, although full of friendships and fun, are never to be relived. There is nothing more painful than making the transition from a child to a teen. In the case of Juliet and Pauline, this transition proved deadly.
This movie could have been SOooooooo good . . .,
*** This review contains spoilers ***
The premise and initial set-up are awesome, a bold and imaginative revisiting of an oft-told tale, in this case the Peter Pan story. (Worthy of mention: the story idea and screenplay are by James V. Hart, who provided another such awesome re-imagining of familiar material with his next film, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA – then followed it through with a clunky and discombobulated narrative.)
The early scenes in London are great. A magical look and feel is established, with an undertone of both menace and wistful regret that gives the movie the feel of a classic in the making. Also, Julia Roberts is absolutely dead-on perfect as Tinkerbell – tomboy and coquette in equal measure, and totally captivating (overall, I don’t get the whole Julia Roberts “thing” and in general think she’s way overrated, but I do love her here). Robin Williams . . . well, he’s just Robin Williams in the early going, I’m afraid; doesn’t really create a character so much as be himself – but what the heck, it feels appropriate. Plenty of time for him to transform himself into Peter Pan later.
Problem is, though, he never does. I’m not sure that any grown-up male could convincingly portray Peter Pan (although Martin Short probably could give it a good shot), but Williams never even looks like he’s trying. He keeps up a steady stream of one-liners which are funny, but ultimately distracting. They keep him too aloof from the proceedings, and that’s death in a story of this kind. I know that in some ways it’s an intangible kind of criticism, but he simply never BECOMES Pan, and so the film – whatever its other merits – is simply dead in the water.
Not that it particularly has too many other merits, anyway, once it arrives in Neverland. Once again, it may simply be impossible for any set or movie-created environment to be as evocative and full of wonder as the one we carry around in our heads concerning this mythical place. Still, what the film-makers come up with here for a setting is ugly and pedestrian beyond belief. The whole thing LOOKS like a movie set, and a particularly cheesy one at that. Ed Wood or Roger Corman would be at home on this set, but it’s not what we would expect from Steven Spielberg – nor, indeed, what is suggested by the wondrous opening London segment which preceded it (did they blow their whole set design budget on the first fifteen minutes?)
The Lost Boys, too: okay, I get what Spielberg was going for, and on the face of it maybe it’s not even a bad idea (though I’m prepared to say that yes it is) – the boys not as Victorian waifs and innocents but rather more closely akin to a present day junior high school class, complete with modern lingo and attitudes. Problem is, as executed, it just comes across as The Goonies in elfin dress, with all the dumb humor and clunky writing intact. Come on now, a food fight?! A “turf war” between Peter and the would-be East Compton homeboy? Arsenio Hall-like “whoo-whoo” dawg pound salutes? Updating something for the modern age is one thing, Steven, but dumbing down your material in order to pander to the Nike generation of kids is just embarrassing.
What’s really a shame, though, aren’t the bad elements per se – it’s that the good stuff really is deserving of greater material surrounding it. First and foremost: the title character himself. Dustin Hoffman just OWNS this role, I mean he really, absolutely just NAILS it. As a matter of fact, what he comes up with here as a characterization is so startling and completely out of left field (the best way to describe it being William F. Buckley and Long John Silver inhabiting the same body), but so wonderfully appropriate and uncannily right . . . that it’s disappointing when we realize how poorly written and developed this character is going to be. Aside from what Hoffman puts across as a performer, the script never makes Captain Hook really menacing, or even particularly intelligent (his cartoonish sidekick Smee being, jarringly, the real brains of the operation). In fact, he’s such a buffoonish character – full of empty threats with no backbone or follow through – that he’s not even a worthy antagonist. Perhaps Spielberg was trying to soft-peddle the danger, in order not to make the movie too scary for little kids – but unfortunately, what we’re left with is a powder-puff villain. Inevitably, then, our investment in the hero’s struggle against him is greatly lessened.
Even that may not have mattered so much if the film could have found a way to better utilize and sustain its most brilliant conceit: the revelation, halfway through, of what finally caused Peter to want to grow up and leave Neverland – the chance to be a FATHER. This particular sequence is handled beautifully, and brought tears to my eyes. It gives his character real tragic dimension, as we realize that his failures as a dad are not simply unfair to his kids, but a betrayal of the best part of his nature. Then there is the delicious irony that Peter’s “happy thought” – which restores him to his full former glory – is that of holding his child in his arms for the first time. This completely floored me, and suggested a much deeper and more well-thought out premise: that the real enemy to be feared and fought against is not Hook (he’s just the catalyst for the story), but in fact Peter’s own divided nature.
Alas, the film settles for the convention of the “climactic showdown” and a not very well-earned (or justified) “happy ending.” But, it seems to me, it could have been so much more.
THE INSIDER – ***
In a perfect world, this would be just another movie. The uniformly strong acting, the tautly-scripted storyline, the assured but (for the most part) largely unobtrusive direction – this stuff should just be par for the course. Back in the mid-70s these kind of smart, densely plotted, clearly focused movies were done all the time. Sadly, in today’s Hollywood of Michael Bay, Lucas/Spielberg clones and Tarantino wanna-be’s – where shock and spectacle, pop culture hipsterism, and visual overkill predominate – an intelligent, sensitively wrought movie like The Insider comes across like some kind of revelation. Rather than what it is: a good, competent film – not a transcendent one, nothing that will stay with you for a long time after you’ve seen it: in short, not a Best Picture nominee. And yet, of all the films up for the Oscar this year, I’d say this one is the best; what does THAT tell you about the movie cycle we’re currently going through?
I don’t mean any of this to take away from the movie itself. There’s much to like here, particularly the lead performances from Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Crowe brings a crimped, repressed intensity to his role as Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on big tobacco and then had to live with the consequences. His stillness and meek stolidity simultaneously pull you in and yet keep you distanced at the same time. He internalizes the role to such an extent that we can sense the springs and whirrings going on underneath without him having to show any of it to us. As a matter of fact, it’s very much the type of controlled intensity which Al Pacino brought to his work in such 70s films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and (especially) the two Godfathers. Alas, it’s a skill that has long deserted him (or been deserted BY him) and he has become one of the most “showy” of actors. No Pacino performance can properly be called subtle anymore – it’s merely a question of the degree his over-acting takes: either full-steam-ahead scenery chewing (Scent of a Woman, Dick Tracy, Devil’s Advocate, Heat) or a more relaxed hamminess which at least keeps him on the same earthly plane as his co-stars (Carlito’s Way, Glengary Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco). Happily, The Insider falls into the latter category, and his portrayal of “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, while certainly heroic and larger than life, is also imbued with a real sense of friendliness and compassion. In dealing with Wigand, he is forced to adopt several different roles – friend, confessor, sounding-board, even big brother – in order to nudge the man into telling his story. Pacino goes through the changes with ease, but he also suggests a real concern and protectiveness for Wigand which go beyond his need to get a good story. As such, the film becomes primarily about the relationship forged between these two men. This is a good way to focus the story, since it puts a human face on the larger issues raised instead of just being a simple-minded polemic, whose characters exist only to move the plot along.
What else. Um, let’s see – the direction is solid, for the most part; it lets the story tell itself rather than trying to inject much bogus “style” onto it (there are some lapses here and there – some overly dramatic soundtrack choices and a misplaced “hallucination” scene in a hotel room – but nothing too major). The supporting cast is all good – though certainly no more than that. This is particularly true of Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace, who’s drawing all sorts of accolade for what is basically an impersonation. An enjoyable one, to be sure, but it never really goes beyond the surface. Of course, the film doesn’t help matters by writing Wallace as a shallow dupe and corporate lackey – it really does a hatchet job on him and I’m not sure how justified it is. The final third of the film, in fact, is a little hard to take – the part which deals with “60 Minutes” refusal to air the tobacco story. It just doesn’t seem as compelling as the earlier part of the film – partly because Wigand, the most interesting character, gets pushed to the background and it becomes a one-man show for Al Pacino. And when I say one man, I really mean it: the Bergman character is portrayed as the only one with any integrity whatsoever, as he single-handedly (and single-mindedly) pushes to get the story out through other media, while his colleagues (including Wallace) are content to tow the corporate line. The filmmakers exaggerate the facts here, and the film suffers as a result: it puffs itself up too self-consciously as an “issues” movie, rather than letting those issues emerge organically through the kind of character study the first part did so well. And any time a film makes one character the sole repository of goodness and integrity, as it does with Pacino here, it tends to become strained and unbelievable. So, too, does The Insider in the final half hour.
Up until then, however, it’s good – though certainly not the second coming of All the President’s Men (the film it’s most often been compared to). There’s no reason, though, why every film shouldn’t be this good; there’s nothing amazing going on here, just an interesting story, well told. If that’s the kind of virtue which gets lauded in Hollywood these days as a masterpiece, then I think we’re all in a lot of trouble.
Government is No Longer Believable
by Paul Preston
This is the title Oneonta’s “The Daily Star” gave my editorial letter after reading one of George Will’s typically over-conservative articles attacking the film “JFK”. The editorial is below:
Oliver Stone is playing hardball. There’s no doubt about that. He made very strong anti-war statements in his films “Salvador”, “Platoon”, and “Born on the Fourth of July”. In his new film, “JFK”, he makes his strongest attack at our government. But that doesn’t mean our government doesn’t deserve it.
I waited to see “JFK” before I read George Will’s article about the film’s fabrications. I’m 21 years old and Kennedy’s assassination was before my time. I’ll admit I knew little about it going into the film, so I was fairly open-minded.
Stone presented over three hours of solid facts in his film supporting a CIA-led conspiracy to kill the president. Remember, however, facts in film ain’t necessarily so.
I took into account the fact that Stone may have stretched a few truths, but I was in his hands for 189 minutes. In 1962, I probably would’ve believed the government’s theory of Lee Harvey Oswald the loner, but after Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran-Contra Scandal,I’m inclined to believe very little the government tells me – or what they bother to tell me.
The problem I have with George Will’s article is that he attacks Stone in every paragraph. Has he forgotten that “JFK” is based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs?
Whether this story is true or not, I don’t think anyone will ever know, but Oliver Stone’s “JFK” has got me thinking. I believe that’s what Stone set out to do.
Critic’s can’t praise the film enough, but George Will and many other columnists in America attack the film as being full of lies without taking the time in their articles to prove the truth. How can you know a lie if you don’t know the truth?
Face it, George is just as clueless as the rest of us about one of America’s greatest tragedies.
This review contains spoilers
Before SUV’s, cellphones and plastic surgery, there was chaos, bloodshed and above-the-law politics.
As you all know, I am one of the only female columnists on this site. Whether this lends to or detracts from my reviews is not an issue. What I do know is that for a woman I find I have a masculine penchant for the darker side of human behavior. I admit that in film I enjoy violence, bloodshed, gore, horror, disturbing imagery, in other words, corrupt cops.
Last night, I decided to watch “L.A. Confidential”. It had been awhile and I had some time on my hands. Here’s what I know. This film is the best noir film to come out since “Chinatown”. Period. I find myself still mulling over the intricate yet comprehensible plot lines. This film is rich with substance. From the beauty of a promise-filled Los Angeles at that time, to the meaty ensemble acting from an impeccable cast. I was so engaged and driven by the plight of all these different characters that I didn’t want it to end.
In a nutshell, this film is based on Elroy’s brilliant novel depicting a time when the L.A.P.D were glorified heroes and corporal punishment was applauded. L.A. was a different place in the 1950’s. It lured people from all over, promising them the future, when the reality was hard living, luck or nepotism played a part in job security. Where the Hollywood dream quickly turned into desperation for those who didn’t make it. Where a corrupt police department shined its badges proudly to the public while selling each other out behind closed doors. Where the mob racket was making headlines over Hollywood starlets. A time when L.A. was interesting.
The plot to some may appear daunting, but with some faith and a little bit of attention, it is nothing short of amazing. To start, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a good old Irish boy, is looking to rid L.A. of the “racket”. Putting the biggest player behind bars allows Cromwell’s police force to become the welcome wagon for any outside newcomers trying to play the game. Forceful tactics in a secluded hotel send newbie mobsters running back to where they came from. To the public this is deserving of their praise and admiration, catapulting the officers into stardom. Meanwhile, back at the station, its Christmas and a jolly good reason to have a party. Goody-two-shoes Officer Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is in charge for the evening when six Hispanic suspects are brought in for assaulting two fellow policemen.
Once word gets out that they are in custody, the inebriated cops decide to take out some of their anger on the Mexicans. A full on brawl starts and the news is there to capture photos of the fight, yanking off the crowns of the kings of the department. (Okay let me back up a second. Back in those days, the police were shadowed by reporters constantly eager to break the latest story. You’ll notice throughout the film there is always some schmuck reporter hanging around.)
The incident is obviously damning to the department and change is inevitable. The department needs a hangman and internal witnesses who will testify to the beatings. Ed Exley, looking for a promotion and apparently having no concern for his social standing in the department, volunteers. He suggests they pull Sgt. Jack Vincennes as a witness as well. Vincennes (played effortlessly by Kevin Spacey) is a narcissistic cop who lets Hollywood’s lust for fame obstruct his ethical choices, leading him to tip off the local tabloid “Hush Hush” magazine run by the slimy Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito). Spacey’s Vincennes also moonlights as a “technical advisor” for a primetime “Dragnet”-type show. Threat of losing his minimal fame prompts him to be the “rat”. Headed by Exley and Sgt. Jack Vincennes, the two act as witnesses for the Supreme Court, which leads to the expulsion of one of their fellow officers. The man in question is Officer Bud White’s (Russell Crowe’s BEST performance) partner, Sgt. Stensland. Now White is the “bad” cop in a “good cop, bad cop” scenario. Big, brutish, not extremely bright, with a temper that explodes with ferociousness that destroys everything in its path. However brutish White may be, he is sensitive to the plight of abused women everywhere due to the demons that led him to becoming a cop.
The night Stensland is removed of his duty there is a brutal murder of six people at The Nite Owl cafe. One of the six is none other than Sgt. Stensland. The timing of his death creates a sense of suspicious urgency at the station. The heinous crime leads the department on a manhunt for the men responsible. To further delve deeper into an already thick plot we find out that Stensland was involved with a girl, also found dead at The Nite Owl, named Sue Lefferts. Lefferts happens to work for a millionaire named Pierce Patchett. Patchett runs a high class hooker business called Fleur de Lis where the girls are “cut” to look like famous movie stars. Bud White’s anger at his partner’s death leads him into a web of deception as he begins to find out exactly what his partner was up to. This also leads him to Lynn Bracken (beautifully played by Kim Basinger). Bracken also works for Patchett as his “Veronica Lake”. Basinger couldn’t have made a better decision playing this part. She is delicately feminine and smart as a whip. She lives her life as a whore laughing at the men she seduces for their own weaknesses. Upon meeting White, she is the only one that he allows himself to open up to. Perhaps her businesslike cool about her profession and the power it gives her allows him to view her as an equal. A woman incapable of being abused. As their relationship unfolds, his propensity towards violence begins to lessen.
As the plots begin to intertwine, we find that all of these crimes are related. Stensland was a dirty cop who’s old partner, Buz Meeks was buried under the house of his girlfriend Sue Lefferts. The fight was over unloading a great big suitcase of Heroin. With mob boss Mickey Cohen behind bars and all his henchmen dead, where did the H come from and why do the cops want it? Pearce’s Exley as goody-two-shoes Boy Scout begins to doubt his own beliefs and realizes that not everything is as it seems. The ghost of his own father’s murder, a former detective as well, forces Exley to abandon his rigid morals and open his eyes to the reality of the situation. He enlists the help of Vincennes to find out what Bud White is up to and what really happened at The Nite Owl. In an exceptionally poignant moment, Exley explains to Vincennes that Rolo Tomasi killed his father. Tomasi is nothing more than a name given to the man that got away. Exley’s inability to purge his father’s memory allows him to give up the ghost. When he asks Vincennes why he became a cop, the man’s eyes fill with tears as he quietly states, “I don’t remember.”
As Vincennes starts to uncover the seedy past of Officer Stensland and Buz Meeks he suddenly meets his untimely demise. After the death of Sgt. Vicennes, Exley and White put aside their differences and decide to work together to finally put to rest all the chaos that has haunted the City of Angels for years.
This movie is unforgettable and will join the ranks of film noir, establishing itself as a classic for years to come. I urge everyone to see it and if you already have, see it again. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking and acting. It will remind you why you love film. Perhaps Hollywood should watch it again and then maybe the studios will start making good pictures again. It’s been a long time coming.
Back to the topic at hand: Crime. Greed. Above the law police officers. Dirty reporters and dirty cops who will stop at nothing to get a headline or a handout. Starlets whose dream of fame leads them down the road less traveled for a dime. A city run by corrupt power. Welcome to Los Angeles.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS
Great acting stranded by a weak script
Nicholas Cage gives a phenomenal performance and Elisabeth Shue is quite good too, though she looks a little too fresh and clean cut to pass for a Vegas street walker. But the film doesn’t add up to much – a kind of exercise in designer chic nihilism. Too much time is spent in pointless montages and musical interludes, when what I really wanted to see was more interaction, more heartfelt discussion and conversation between these two people. I don’t mind that the film doesn’t provide an “explanation” for Ben’s drinking, or that it refuses him any redemption or rehabilitation. But I didn’t like how it stayed at arm’s length from both Ben and Sera: we never really know what they’re thinking, we just see what they do. For a movie which strips away so much of conventional narrative or character development, that’s pretty unforgivable because without really getting into their skin, we’re left with nothing.
Cage comes to Las Vegas to die. But he could do this alone – so why does he reach out toward Shue’s character? If he’s not looking to be saved (and he makes it clear he’s not), then what exactly does he want from her? On her side of things, why does she even get mixed up with a guy who’s on a suicide trip? What is it about him, what need does he satisfy in her which makes her willing to build a relationship with him even though she knows it can’t last? These are fascinating questions, and ones which might have formed the basis of a wonderful character sketch. But Mike Figgis, the writer and director, was either uninterested in them or simply unable to answer them, so what we get instead are two great performances in search of a reason for being.
MAD CITY – ***1/2
I was so depressed when I left this movie – depressed in a good way though, in the way the filmmakers wanted me to be. “The media has become an out-of-control circus,” I thought to myself. Certainly not an original thought or insight, and not extremely different from many other movies and stories out there with a similar message. The difference with “Mad City”, though, was that it didn’t play this insight for satire or sly comedy. There’s an anger and a sadness that runs through the entire movie – a burning regret that this is the way things have to be. The filmmakers could have easily reached for humor or gaudy overstatement to make their points (as was done, say, in “Network” or “Natural Born Killers”) but instead they keep most everything at the human level, and that makes all the difference. We come to feel really bad for the Travolta character; the screenwriters’ making him such a simpleton is, I’ll admit, a bit manipulative, but as manipulations go it’s a good one and a smart one – it lets us see the toll in human terms of the media frenzy. Dustin Hoffman and particularly Alan Alda are expert in their roles as media sharks, and the sort of Mutt and Jeff (or perhaps George and Lenny) relationship which Hoffman and Travolta get into here is really marvelous. It has beats of comedy to it, while never being anything less than totally serious (kind of like Hoffman and Cruise in “Rain Man” – though the film never strains for that connection).
I think of this movie often in conjunction with “Wag the Dog,” Hoffman’s other movie that year and for me it’s no comparison: “Wag the Dog” is gleefully cynical, seems to take real joy in the media being so ever-present and the audience being so easily conned. For me, that rings as hollow satire; “Mad City” by truly trying to examine and get us to think about (not just laugh at) the media’s power is miles away the better film.
THE MASK OF ZORRO (***1/2)
Dear all of you who probably saw either “Deep Impact”, “Armageddon”, “Godzilla” or “Lost in Space”:
The summer’s action movie has arrived and it is
“The Mask of Zorro”
This letter is nothing other than a ringing endorsement from me, if that means anything. I caught a sneak preview and it reminds me of the Indiana Jones movies. Found within:
– a believable and likable hero (something missing if you look at the last few year’s worth of movies. There’s only Bond leftover from years ago. BTW – Zorro’s director directed “Goldeneye!”)
– beautiful locales and cinematography.
– a directing style by Martin Campbell similar to Cameron and Spielberg in that the camera doesn’t need to shake to replace the lack of action. In this movie, there is action and Campbell simply films it. The action stands on it’s own without needing a “Con-Air” like crutch from the cinematographer.
– the stars of this movie are ACTORS. Not necessarily “action movie stars”. They really drive the plot and raise the stakes AND they look damn good in a fight (also, Anthony Hopkins is the world’s greatest actor, don’t even debate me….).
So, this summer has had great movies, see “Bulworth” and “Out of Sight”, but as far as action goes, there certainly was no “Jurassic Park” or “Clear and Present Danger” yet this year. Not to say “Zorro” was brilliant in a “LA Confidential” kind of way, but it’s smart, looks good, and has great action, which is nothing that any other action movie out there has. So if you’re fed up with the MTV antics of “Armageddon”, GO see “The Mask of Zorro”, it opens friday.
I’m Paul Preston, and the balcony is closed.
MULTIPLICITY – ***
Though nowhere near as good as Groundhog Day (director Harold Ramis’s previous movie) this is still a solid comedy with several big laughs. Though its situation of a man cloning himself in order to make his life more manageable would have been an interesting one to play (like Groundhog Day) with a serio-comic focus, Multiplicity – despite some token moralizing – is pretty much content to play its premise for wacky farce. As such, however, it does an expert job: the timing in the scenes is impeccable and the interplay between the main characters is sharp and memorable. This is especially amazing since the “main characters” here are almost exclusively played by Michael Keaton. His ability to not only delineate between the four versions of himself, but also to play each of these “selves” off convincingly against the others is nothing short of superb. In my mind, this represents a much more awesome achievement than does Eddie Murphy’s similar multiple role-playing in The Nutty Professor – and here it’s not just pointless showboating (there was no reason besides vanity that Murphy had to play every member of his family), but absolutely intrinsic to the movie’s success. Essentially, the film rides on Keaton’s ability to do precisely what he does as well as he does. Multiplicity represents his funniest film work in years, and perhaps his best ever.
A couple of scenes in particular stand out as howlingly funny set pieces – such as the one in the restaurant and the one where the clones are left alone with Keaton’s wife, played by Andie McDowell. It’s a shame her character wasn’t at least a little bit more sketched in by the writers (compare this, for example, to her wonderfully three dimensional role in Groundhog Day) – it might have made the film a little fuller. In fact, none of the supporting characters are really given much to do here, making it solidly a one man show. But what a show! With Keaton truly hitting every comic grace note available, you don’t really have much time to notice or care about the lack of secondary characters. I have seen this film four times and it has yet to lose one iota of its hilarity or charm. Hey, how much more can you demand from a comedy?
THE MUSE (*)
What has happened to Albert Brooks lately? He used to be the sharpest satirist around of not only Hollywood sleaze but neurotic self-absorption. Brooks was never afraid to be unlikable in his movies in order to make his comic points. However, in his past three films (“Defending Your Life”, “Mother”, and now this) he’s backed off from this approach. It seems that now, Albert actually wants to. . . (gulp)… be LIKED. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really suit him, and it takes all the teeth out of his work. Albert Brooks trying to be likable (or at least non-offensive) is just, well, dull. And so his films have become increasingly random and unfocused.
Still, this is by far the worst of the lot. Added to his fundamental toothlessness, Brooks concocts a story that, while it could have had comic potential, is just ludicrous. The muse character is simply annoying from the get-go, Andie McDowell as the wife has once again been given no role, and the much-vaunted celebrity cameos are gratuitous and not particularly well-done: none of them seem like they’re comfortable being in the picture and want to get out as quickly as possible (the lone exception to this is Martin Scorsese’s hilarious appearance explaining his ideas for a “Raging Bull” sequel – his manic energy is so enjoyable and completely loopy that, in only a couple of minutes of screen time, he steals the picture outright).
Most damningly, though, Brooks character is just not one we can get behind – either to like (he’s too whiny and flaccid) or even to have fun disliking (we’re sympathetic toward him as he’s dumped on by the Hollywood establishment). Moreover, the idea for a movie he comes up with under the muse’s influence (something about a Jim Carrey comedy taking place in an aquarium ) is such an obvious piece of hack-work, yet presented as such an epiphany, that we’re not really sure if Brooks knows how bad it is. Is this movie a satire about a writer who’s lost his talent (Brooks’ character in the film), or an unconscious demonstration of the fact (Brooks the man behind this script)? Sadly, I think the latter. Anyone who’s loved Brooks in the past will be sorely disappointed by this film, and I can’t imagine it making any converts, either. So I guess that covers just about everyone: stay away from The Muse.
OSCAR RANT 2000
(Honoring the best films of 1999)
1. Best Picture:
“The Cider House Rules,”
“The Green Mile,”
“The Insider,” WTS
“The Sixth Sense.”
Missing – Naturally, “South Park”, “Magnolia”, “Toy Story 2” and “Election”. I thought for sure that “Toy Story 2” had a chance, especially with the Golden Globe win. They’re just hesitant with animated films. “Beauty” and “The Insider” are worthy contenders. “The Green Mile” is a OK, I had a lukewarm reaction to that, “Man on the Moon” and “Mr. Ripley”. All three were considered
THE films for contention, all three were OK. I think “The Cider House Rules” presence here is part of the Miramax marketing machine. They had alot of films to boast about last year (“Shakespeare in Love”, “Life is Beautiful”), this year they had ONE, and were GOING to see it nominated.
Will win – “American Beauty”
Should win – “The Sixth Sense”
Russell Crowe, “The Insider”;
Richard Farnsworth,”The Straight Story”;
Sean Penn, “Sweet and Lowdown”;
Kevin Spacey, “American Beauty”;
Denzel Washington, “The Hurricane.”
Missing – Eddie Murphy for “Bowfinger” and Jim Carrey (naturally, I hope that he and Steve Martin will be recognized for comedy, like in “Liar, Liar” and “All of Me”). The only problem is who
to take out! This is a great category.
Will win – Denzel
Should – he or Spacey, I’m seeing “The Hurricane” Monday
Annette Bening, “American Beauty”;
Janet McTeer, “Tumbleweeds”;
Julianne Moore, “The End of the Affair”;
Meryl Streep, “Music of the Heart”;
Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Missing – REESE WITHERSPOON!!! She got robbed for her performance in “Election”!! Meryl was good, and I actually enjoyed that film more than I thought I’d like another “teacher-makes-good” story, but it’s run-of-the-mill in comparison. Julianne Moore could’ve been nominated for any of the four or five film she was in this year.
Will win – Swank
Should win – her, based on hype only. Haven’t seen “Boy’s Don’t Cry”
4. Supporting Actor:
Michael Caine, “The Cider House Rules”;
Tom Cruise, “Magnolia”;
Michael Clarke Duncan, “TheGreen Mile”;
Jude Law, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”;
Haley Joel Osment, “The Sixth Sense.”
Tom Cruise’s nomination is one of 3 favorite nominations on the board this year. He’s FANTASTIC. His bawdy motivational speaker gives him great scenery-chewing scenes, but his post-speech interview is a thing of beauty, where he is ravenous one moment, and emotionally imploding the next. Give it
to him. But also good for the Academy for recognizing Osment.
Will win – Cruise (Hollywood wants to reward him, too)
Should win – Cruise
5. Supporting Actress:
Toni Collette, “The Sixth Sense”;
Angelina Jolie, “Girl, Interrupted”;
Catherine Keener, “Being John Malkovich”;
Samantha Morton, “Sweet and Lowdown”;
Chloe Sevigny, “Boys Don’t Cry.”
My second of three nominations that I LOVE is Collette’s. She received no awards up to now, was not nominated for a Golden Globe, but the Academy saw what I saw. She was absolutely believable as a mother at the end of her rope. Not mad all the time, but ocassionally sad, trying REALLY HARD to be beautiful, and I bought every second.
Will win – Jolie, sadly enough
Should – Collette
Sam Mendes, “American Beauty”;
Spike Jonze, “Being John Malkovich”;
Lasse Hallstrom, “The Cider HouseRules”;
Michael Mann, “The Insider”;
M. Night Shyamalan, “The Sixth Sense.”
Obviously missing from this list is John Lasseter of “Toy Story 2”, who blended humor, friendship, emotion, ACTION and made you forget it wasn’t real. ANY OF IT. It’s good to see Mann nominated, and Jonze for his exceptionally original FIRST film. Still, I think they should do away with this award, an give an Oscar to the director of whatever wins Best Picture.
Will win – Mendes
Should – Shyamalan, for his economical work.
7. Foreign Film:
“All About My Mother,” Spain
“Solomon and Gaenor,” United Kingdom
“Under the Sun,” Sweden
Where the hell is “Run Lola Run”!!! What the hell!!! That just pisses me off!
Will win – oh, I’m sure Nepal’s film was AWESOME
Should – you tell me…
8. Screenplay (written based on material previously produced or
John Irving, “The Cider House Rules”;
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, “Election”;
Frank Darabont, “The Green Mile”;
Eric Roth and Michael Mann, “The Insider”;
Anthony Minghella, “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
This is a pretty decent category. I probably would’ve found something besides “Ripley”.
Will win – ???
should – “Election”
9. Screenplay (written directly for the screen):
Alan Ball, “American Beauty”;
Charlie Kaufman, “Being John Malkovich”;
Paul Thomas Anderson, “Magnolia”;
M. Night Shyamalan, “The Sixth Sense”;
Mike Leigh, “Topsy-Turvy.”
EXCELLENT category. It is as sure a thing as the Best Supp. Actor that this category is filled with great work. Again, throw “South Park” and “Toy Story 2” in there and I LOVE it. By the way, my runner’s up for year’s best script include:
“Run Lola Run”
These are pretty damn original, too, and could take the place of
“Topsy-Turvy”, which I hear was mostly improvised.
Will win – “American Beauty”
Should – “The Sixth Sense”
10. Art Direction:
“Anna and the King”
“The Cider House Rules”
“The Talented Mr. Ripley”
You’ve got to include “The Matrix” here. And “Fight Club”.
Will win – “Ripley”
Should – “Sleepy Hollow”
“The End of the Affair”
“Snow Falling on Cedars”
You’ve got to include “Three Kings” here, and “Run Lola Run”. Besides the man thing, 1999 was defined by an eccentric visual style. Sure, “Sleepy Hollow” had that, but how about “Kings”, “Lola”, “The Matrix”, “Magnolia” and “FIGHT CLUB” for the
love of God! These movies told you stories like no other movies before. They put a stamp on the year that’ll continue into 2000.
Will win – “American Beauty”
Should – “American Beauty”
“The Green Mile”
“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
As disappointed with the story as many were, the SPECTACLE remained, and “Star Wars” is due here.
Will win – “Star Wars”
Should – “Star Wars”
13. Sound Effects Editing:
“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace”
Ditto, but it’s great to see “Fight Club” nominated here.
Will win – “Star Wars”
Should – “Star Wars”, simply ’cause it demanded more, including providing sound to things that weren’t there.
14. Original Score:
“American Beauty,” Thomas Newman;
“Angela’s Ashes,” John Williams;
“The Cider House Rules,”Rachel Portman;
“The Red Violin,” John Corigliano;
“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Gabriel Yared.
How could you not nominate Angelo Badalamenti for “The Straight Story”. That’s a real injustice.
Will win – “Ripley”
Should – “Ripley”
15. Original Song:
“Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”, Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman;
“Music of My Heart” from “Music of the Heart”,Diane Warren;
“Save Me” from “Magnolia”, Aimee Mann;
“When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story 2”, Randy Newman;
“You’ll be in My Heart” from “Tarzan”, Phil Collins.
This category is hot, and naturally, contains my third favorite Nomination of all – “South Park”!!! I would’ve entered “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” into competition, but they entered ‘Blame Canada’. I’m gonna crap smiles when this song is performed at the ACADEMY AWARDS!! How cool is that gonna be!! Especially lines like “My son Eric had my picture on his shelf. And now when
he sees me he tells me to F**K myself!!” And it’s surrounded by excellent competition. Not a bad apple in the bunch (no Beautiful Stranger, basically….)
Will win – “Toy Story 2” – a risk, you’d think Phil’s song is more accessible, but Newman’s due.
Should win – Newman, only because it’s not “Uncle F**ka”
“Anna and the King”
“The Talented Mr. Ripley”
Where’s “The Matrix” here? Or “Star Wars”? Oh, well, give it to Burton.
Will win – “Ripley”
Should – “Sleepy Hollow”
17. Documentary Feature:
“Buena Vista Social Club,”
“On the Ropes,”
“One Day in September,”
“Speaking in Strings.”
Is there something so wrong with Errol Morris? This category is always a damn joke…
Will win – between “Ropes” and “Buena Vista”
Should – “Ropes”
19. Film Editing:
“The Cider House Rules”
“The Sixth Sense”
Again, the editing contributed just as much as anything else to the
fast-paced look of “Run Lola Run”, “Three Kings”, “Magnolia” and “Fight Club”. Yet they’re not nominated.
Will win – “Beauty”
Should – “The Sixth Sense” – for more deliberateness.
“Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”
Thank God those rubber-faced dudes from “Star Wars” didn’t get nominated!!!
Will win – “Topsy-Turvy”, so the Academy can stay highbrow
Should – ???
23. Visual Effects:
“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace”
Give it to “The Matrix”!!! “Star Wars” will probably win, but “The Matrix” was more ingenious.
Will win – “Star Wars”
Should – “THE MATRIX”!!!! This is the future of sci-fi, not Jar-Jar Binks
Oscar winners previously announced this year:
GORDON E. SAWYER: Dr. Roderick T. Ryan, who created a film processor for use in special effects.
IRVING THALBERG MEMORIAL AWARD: Warren Beatty.
HONORARY AWARD: Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.
OSCAR RANT 1999
(This was written before the Oscars honoring the films of 1998)
Hi all, Paul Preston here. Had the NEED to vent on the nominations before the envelopes are opened Sunday evening. I’ll probably have even more to say on Monday. Enjoy and send comments if the need overtakes ya. This will all eventually be posted at prestonandvolpe.com if you lose the mail for some reason. The post-ceremony rant will be there, too. Have fun!
“Life Is Beautiful”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“The Thin Red Line”
-This seems to be a pretty safe list. I would’ve injected a little dose of balls by nominating “Bulworth” instead of “The Thin Red Line”. I would’ve used a Thin Red Magic Marker to edit the hell outta that script. “Elizabeth” is the only nominee I haven’t seen, and it’s on the agenda for tomorrow afternoon before the Oscars. There was quite a lack of really risky films, vying instead for patriotism and beauty. I would’ve liked to have maybe seen nominations for “American History X” and/or “Pleasantville” as well. I’m also a fan of “The Spanish Prisoner”. “Life is Beautiful” is a good nomination.
Will win: “Ryan”
Roberto Benigni – “Life Is Beautiful”
Tom Hanks – “Saving Private Ryan”
Sir Ian McKellen – “Gods And Monsters”
Nick Nolte – “Affliction”
Edward Norton – “American History X”
– My favorite nomination on the WHOLE list is Edward Norton’s. He was great, and he did alot to make the film and achieve the success he did in the role. “Affliction” is also on tomorrow’s agenda, and I haven’t seen “Gods and Monsters”. The race is between McKellen and Benigni. Jim Carrey’s no-show is not a big surprise, he’ll have to stretch a bit more for recognition, and I believe he’s got it coming up with “Man in the Moon”. I also would’ve nominated Jason Schwartzman from “Rushmore”. He made that very complicated character look easy to play. There’s alot more going on there than people may give him credit for. People like the movie, but I think Schwartzman is a HUGE part of it’s success. I also liked Travolta in “Primary Colors” and loved Beatty in “Bulworth”.
Will win: McKellan
Should win: Norton (but as I said, I’m a little less versed in this category)
Cate Blanchett – “Elizabeth”
Fernanda Montenegro – “Central Station”
Gwyneth Paltrow – “Shakespeare In Love”
Meryl Streep – “One True Thing”
Emily Watson – “Hilary and Jackie”
– speaking of little knowledge, I’ve only seen “Shakespeare” to know the performances in this category. The race is quite clearly between Blanchett and Paltrow. I’d love to go on, but I still have viewing to do on this one.
Will win: Paltrow
Should: Paltrow (for years I’ve seen her on magazine covers ’cause she’s PRETTY. Made me sick ’cause her movies sucked. At least she more than lives up to her hype now with a wonderfully romantic performance in “Shakespeare in Love”)
Best Actor In A Supporting Role:
James Coburn – “Affliction”
Robert Duvall – “A Civil Action”
Ed Harris – “The Truman Show”
Geoffrey Rush – “Shakespeare in Love”
Billy Bob Thornton – “A Simple Plan”
– Every year this is the category the is filled with great performances and is missing at least 5 or 6 more GREAT performances. This year the crime snub is Bill Murray, wonderfully snide and lonely as a millionaire in “Rushmore”. I thought Duvall’s character was strange and sublime, but didn’t have to deal with as much as Murray’s. I hear Rush is even more brilliant in “Elizabeth”. Find out about that and Coburn tomorrow. People say the statue is Harris’, ’cause he’s due. Well, he’s great, but I hope they go with Thornton, who was fu**ing brilliant in “A Simple Plan”. Human, quirky, funny, unpredictable, he was awesome, and, like last year when Burt Reynolds didn’t win, I think they’ll go beyond the “he’s got it coming” way of thinking and hopefully go with Thornton.
Will win: Thornton
Best Actress In A Supporting Role:
Kathy Bates – “Primary Colors”
Brenda Blethyn – “Little Voice”
Judi Dench – “Shakespeare in Love”
Lynn Redgrave – “Gods And Monsters”
Rachel Griffiths – “Hilary and Jackie”
– Again, I’ve only seen Dench and Bates’ performances. “Primary Colors” was a great film, much underlooked by most everyone and Bates is a moral and exciting center to the plight of the lead characters. I hope Dench doesn’t get a “lifetime achievement” award and they give her the Bacall treatment. Bates deserves it. Missing from the list is Joan Allen for “Pleasantville”. Can she give a bad performance? She should be there, and you could take out Dench to make room. Judi Dench is awesome and all, but she got robbed last year for “Mrs. Brown”, it’s too late to “make amends”. Oh, let me not forget to praise great work in a bad film: Kimberly Elise deserves a nomination for “Beloved”. You really rooted for her grounded character amongst all the freaks.
Will win: Dench (as if one can predict the “Tomei – Paquin” category)
Should win: Bates
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“What Dreams May Come”
And now, I get pissed. No nomination for “Babe: Pig in the City”? Can anyone who saw this movie deny the sheer impressive magnitude of the sets!!!!!????!!!!! They were incredible! Half the sets in “Dreams” were special effects anyway, take that out and put in “Babe”, for the love of God!! Also could’ve stood to see “Rushmore” get another nod, the sets were the half the reason that movie had such glorious color.
Will win: “Shakespeare”
Should: “Shakespeare” (Even if you didn’t dig the story or something, this is one of the most LUSH movies in a long time)
“A Civil Action”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“The Thin Red Line”
The photography of “The Thin Red Line” was the only thing worth watching, but “Ryan”’s was instrumental to the “you are there” feeling of the battles that bookend the film. “A Civil Action” had great photography, too. I could’ve even thrown nominations to “Rushmore”, “A Simple Plan” and even “The Big Lebowski”. There was alot of good work this year, but Kaminski owns this one.
Will win: “Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
These are all fine nominations. Rarely do people get recognized for modern dress, though. (biggest ripoff ever – “Wall Street” not winning). So I’d like to throw another nod to “Bulworth”.
Will win: “Shakespeare”
Should: “Shakespeare” (more lush-ness)
“Life Is Beautiful”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“The Thin Red Line”
“The Truman Show”
What a task to make “Ryan”. Give Spielberg the damn statue! Again, in tune with my picture nods, I would’ve acknowledged Beatty in this category in place of the meandering Malick. Weir should’ve won for “Witness”. I love the fact that the Academy gave Spielberg an award for “career achievement” after snubbing him so many times, and now he’s gone on to win 2 Oscars and be nominated again for two! In your face, Ossy!!
Will win: Spielberg
“The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.”
“The Last Days”
“Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth”
“Regret To Inform”
um…didn’t see ’em…
Documentary Short Subject:
“The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years”
“A Place In The Sun”
“Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square”
um…didn’t see ’em…
“Life Is Beautiful”
“Out Of Sight”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“The Thin Red Line”
Again, you gotta go with “Ryan” for making an action scene seem so interesting and understandable, even when the focus of the scene’s theme is chaos. Too many action movies today (see Bruckheimer) edit all super-crazy to make up for lack of action. For years, Spielberg has been making the action tangible (“Raiders”, “Jurassic Park”) without confusing us. His editors are 75% of that work. Maybe even a little nod could’ve gone to “The Mask of Zorro” for the same feat.
Will win: “Ryan”
Foreign Language Film:
“Children Of Heaven”
“Life Is Beautiful”
I’ve read alot about this category, and I believe it’s more FULL of good movies than usual. Still, I get to see about one foreign movie every 6 months or so. This time it was “Life is Beautiful”, and it was very, very good. And the Academy wants to give this guy an Oscar!
Will win: “Life”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
There was no real effects-laden show to dominate this category. I hear Blanchett’s transformation is quite award-worthy.
Will win: “Elizabeth”
Should: Liz, why not.
Original Musical or Comedy Score:
“A Bug’s Life”
“The Prince Of Egypt”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“Shakespeare” had a beautiful score, great theme and it’s my pick. It’s a shame to see “Patch Adams” nominated for anything. The animated films usually win here, and I liked the films here very much (especially “A Bug’s Life” – ****), but the scores I can’t remember.
Will win: “Shakespeare”
Original Dramatic Score:
“Life Is Beautiful”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“The Thin Red Line”
John Williams held back so much on “Pvt. Ryan” (thank God), that I can’t remember the usefulness of his music in the film. The music I was affected by most was “Beautiful”’s. Wait, I was also affected by “The Thin Red Line”’s music – it wouldn’t STOP. How obtrusive was that score? Take the nomination away and make room for James Horner’s “Zorro” score or “He Got Game”, anything.
Will win: “Beautiful”
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from “Armageddon”
“The Prayer” from “Quest For Camelot”
“A Soft Place to Fall” from “The Horse Whisperer”
“That’ll Do” from “Babe: Pig In The City”
“When You Believe” from “The Prince Of Eqypt”
Please God, don’t let that cheese-fest Aerosmith tune win. How laborious is that mess? Any of the tunes from “He Got Game” were more affective. The song from “Egypt” was good, but the Whitney/Mariah version of it has about 90% less spirit and soul than the movie characters singing it. And, I don’t know if they’re trying to oust Disney from this category, but the “Mulan” songs were pretty good.
Will win: “Egypt”
Short Film, Animated:
“The Canterbury Tales”
“When Life Departs”
um…didn’t see ’em…
Short Film, Live Action:
“Election Night (Valgaften)”
“Le Carte Postale (The Postcard)”
um…didn’t see ’em…
“The Mask Of Zorro”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare in Love”
“The Thin Red Line”
“Ryan”, “Ryan”, “Ryan”. I swear I was shot in the head during that film. If “Armageddon” wins, then it will be known as an “Oscar winning film.” Then I will have to shoot myself in the scrotum.
Will win: “Ryan”
Sound Effects Editing:
“The Mask Of Zorro”
“Saving Private Ryan”
Again, a staggering piece of realism, give the award to “Ryan”
Will win: “Ryan”
Should: “Ryan” (and thank God, ’cause when a film like “Unforgiven” is winning best picture, it rarely sweeps the tech categories and some piece of crap film can pick up an Oscar, but hopefully this year’s winner will win, and deserve it and show hacks like Bruckheimer and Emmerich how to utilize filmmaking!!!)
“Mighty Joe Young”
“What Dreams May Come”
“Dreams” had MUCH eye-candy. The effects were essential. Not that they weren’t in “Joe Young”, but I kept saying (in the previews, what am I gonna do, pay for that crap?) “look at that effect” instead of “look at that gorilla”.
Will win: “Young” (Oscar likes dumb stuff like that)
“Gods And Monsters”
“Out Of Sight”
“A Simple Plan”
“The Thin Red Line”
“Red Line”? “Red line”? Sheesh. Didn’t see “Monsters”, like I said. “A Simple Plan” was tight, tight plotting and continual stakes-raising, which is always fun.
Will win: “Out of Sight”
Should: “A Simple Plan”
“Life Is Beautiful”
“Saving Private Ryan”
“Shakespeare In Love”
“The Truman Show”
Beatty’s work here was great, and risky. Stoppard’s wasn’t as risky, but it certainly is popular and original. These are all great nominations, and all deserve the prize. I might have even thrown in “There’s Something About Mary” for being funny as hell.
Will win: “Shakespeare”
Should: “Bulworth” (again, for balls)
OSCAR RANT 1999 (PART 2)
(This was written after the Oscar telecast)
Well, since my first Oscar Rant was delayed until the day before the show, my post-show response feels late, too. Thoughts:
PICTURE: “Ryan”. It will be the most-remembered film of this year. “Saving Private Ryan” is the first casualty of the excessive vote-lobbying that goes on in Hollywood. Once upon a time there used to be little articles in Entertainment Weekly telling the average film layman about the ads taken out in the trades to woo Academy voters to vote for certain films or certain actors and tech stuff. Now, it’s giant articles reporting of huge, millions-dollar campaigns. Ugly. And “Ryan” would win if it were a strictly political contest! Best Picture because it’s patriotic, epic, time period, etc. It just also happens to deserve it. “Shakespeare in Love” is a fine film, but I disagree that it’s the year’s best. It’s an empty “victory” for Miramax.
ACTOR: Was Benigni a relief or what? Mini-rant: this year’s Oscar telecast sucked. Whoopi was about as funny as dirt, it POKED along and the Debbie Allen nonsense was vacant and retarded and occasionally offensive to the fine musicians the dance was supposedly “supporting”. For God’s sake, gimme Seinfeld!!! What is he, busy?!? And all the songs were lame and were performed lamely. I certainly missed Springsteen, Neil Young and even well-written Disney tunes. That aside, Benigni provided a jolt of joy in the whole maudlin mess. And now that I’ve seen all the nominee’s performances, what the hell, give it to him. I’m still a fan of Norton’s, but he didn’t have a chance. Nolte’s good performance I thought was bogged in a strange script, McKellan shined in a story of underwhelming significance. Benigni did a good job in a good film, what the hell, give it to him.
ACTRESS: Blanchett, dammit!! The day of the Oscars I saw “Elizabeth” and was surprised how much I liked it. It’s the old Hackman-Hoffman thing. Hoffman (in Rain Man) beat Hackman (in “Mississippi Burning”) in 1988. Rain Man was the more high-profile film, but Hackman did MORE in a film of less commercial success. Ditto Blanchett and Paltrow. Blanchett’s character simply had more to deal with, and goes one step further to get my nod. But I still say I’m happy to have finally ENJOYED Paltrow in a film, way to finally live up to the hype.
By the way, did anyone else see “The Matrix”. I beat myself up when I bought a ticket: “Why am I seeing another film that looks promising, but will have Keanu Reeves ruin it simply by his mere presence (or non-presence as it usually seems)?” Judgement: he didn’t ruin it. If you like to watch a VERY stylish flick where you get to see people kick ass, check it out. Granted Reeves doesn’t have half the charisma of a Cruise or Gibson, but he looked great and didn’t ruin it. I think “didn’t ruin it” is about the best he’s gonna get.
SUPP. ACTOR: Billy Bob got robbed. Point blank. Saw “Affliction” the day of the Oscars, James Coburn played a mean drunk. Not different from…well….actually no one in recent history has won for playing a mean drunk. It’s pretty damn easy. Again, Coburn (Hoffman) – one note success. Thornton (Hackman) – multi-layered success, and hence, more impressive.
SUPP. ACTRESS: SPEAKING OF ROBBED!!!! There’s a new category: Best Cameo. Now why wasn’t Ted Danson nominated in “Ryan”, or Woody Harrelson in “The Thin Red Line”, or Marcel Marceau for “Silent Movie”? Gip, gip, gip!! Kathy Bates was as viciously robbed as Judi Dench was last year. Too little, too late, ya bastards.
ART DIRECTION: Upon a second viewing, I might disagree with the Academy, and change my vote to “Pvt. Ryan”. It looked great. They really were sticklers for place, it became a character even more than the England re-created for “Shakespeare”. Also, the characters of “Ryan” are so richly entrenched in that time, proper re-creation of war-torn battlefields is crucial. The players of “Shakespeare” are foolin’ around with anachronisms so much that it takes away from what the Art directors have done.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Right on.
COSTUME: I think we’re all agreed that “Elizabeth” and “Shakespeare” had similar success and it was a toss-up. RANDOM THOUGHT: Geoffrey Rush deserved his nomination more for “Elizabeth” than “Shakespeare in Love”.
DIRECTING: Kudos, Steve, super achievement. I’m still a believer, however, in Rob Reiner’s theory: lose the director’s category and give an Oscar to the Producer and Director when a film wins Best Picture. Then again, in my world, “Ryan” would’ve won.
DOCUMENTARY CATEGORIES: Kudos, whatever won, super achievement.
EDITING: Right on. This man edited “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, for God’s Sake!!!
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Huzzah for Roberto! “Life is Beautiful” is so good, I think people are glad that it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film so they can write it off for Best Picture and not have to mull over whether it’s better than “Ryan” or
“Shakespeare”!! Decisions, decisions.
MAKEUP: I was just happy to see “Elizabeth” win something, ’cause it was good! I’m still pissed that “Broadcast News” was nominated for 7 Oscars and won NONE!
SCORE: Can’t whistle dick from any of the nominees except “Shakespeare”’s theme, I’m glad it won. “Life is Beautiful” was a dead-on choice. Well done.
SONG: Much like “Beauty and the Beast”, “When You Believe” sounds 1 MILLION times better sung by the film’s characters than by Mariah “will screw for fame” Carey and Whitney “too damn boring to come up with an interesting joke nickname” Houston. For the FILM version, it’s a winner.
Joel Siegel said that they should show the Best Animated Short IN IT’S ENTIRETY instead of that Debbie Allen BS. I think we ALL were intrigued by “Bunny”, right?
SOUND, SOUND EFFECTS, VISUAL EFFECTS: Right on.
ADAPTED SCRIPT: Saw “Gods and Monsters” last week. I didn’t understand why the story was imortant enough to tell. I’d rather see a story of James Whale dealing with his homosexuality in a homophobic Hollywood while trying to direct horror films! “A Simple Plan” was the most twisty, jolt-filled, unpredictable flick of the year. My pick, denied.
ORIGNAL SCRIPT: “Shakespeare” was a shoo-in. It’s all good and everything, but I had a soft spot for “Bulworth”.
Overall, mild, tepid and lame. And we’ve already gone 3 months this year with nothing Oscar-worthy (except “The Matrix”’s effects). Let’s hope we don’t go another 9 with similar results….
Anyone who has comments on the Oscars, I’d love to hear them!!!
REMEMBERING GENE SISKEL
Anyone who knows me knows that there are two guys and a girl who I’m guaranteed to see every week. The girl is my wife Karen. The guys are Siskel & Ebert.
Naturally, then, learning about the death of Gene Siskel was a big blow. This was a man who loved movies. Now, to me, that’s about 4000 points of respect right there.
Gene Siskel helped change the way we all think and react to movies. If his show and his columns and reviews only made ONE person out there besides me demand an upgrade in quality and intelligence in this fascinating art form, than that’s progress towards filling up the extraordinarily shallow idea pool that seems to be festering in Hollywood with scripts worth watching.
Remember “Simply Irresistible”? Me neither. Came out two weeks ago…
Gene’s conversations with Roger Ebert took film criticism beyond the stodgy writer behind his desk to a thoughtful exchange that could be understood by everyone. More importantly, everyone could relate to their arguments, which always sought for the uplifting and empowerment of the art of filmmaking.
Besides a great critic, he was also a Bulls fan (and he’ll never know how much they’re stinkin’ up the joint right now. I wish I didn’t…). He was also a great father, husband and Chicagoan, endlessly giving to the city and to Parker Schools on Clark St. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at that school in 1995, and even then he was backing the imagination and power of films that really deserved the recognition like “Pulp Fiction” and “Once Were Warriors”.
So, in a day dedicated to Gene, Karen and I went to the movies on Sunday, the day after he died. We’ve been more-or-less house quarantined while writing and rehearsing a play. With the play’s opening last weekend, we have some “free time” (woohoo!) and we’re finally catching up on some of 1998’s most acclaimed films. We weren’t going to spend a day dedicated to Gene seeing “Jawbreaker” or “My Favorite Martian”, instead we saw “Rushmore” and “Life is Beautiful”. I think Gene would’ve given our day a Thumbs Up. We certainly did, as they were both great films.
The guy LOVED movies.
So do I, dammit.
He will be missed.
RUSHMORE – **
I’m a huge fan of Bill Murray and I have to admit that the main reason I even saw this movie was because he was in it and I’d heard how good he was. I was really disappointed; this has got to be the wispiest, most spineless, least amusing character Bill Murray has ever played in his long film career. I can’t understand why all the critics thought it was so great. Herman Blume is so insular and withdrawn that he allows Murray to display none of his patented hipster irony and charm. Nor is he a very credible character: supposedly some kind of industrial tycoon, he’s not given any kind of strength or determination or craftiness – in short, nothing that would make us believe that he was capable of being the self-made man he’s supposed to be. No, his prime function in the movie is to serve as a kind of patsy/second banana for the kid. It’s all about how he learns from MAX, how he comes to admire MAX, how he’s duped and gotten the better of by MAX — their relationship is entirely one-sided and it soon became very annoying.
Partly, that’s because Max himself is so annoying – geeky, rude and completely full of himself. I have to say, however, that I found Jason Schwartzman’s performance in the role to be really good. He’s not afraid to BE unlikable, doesn’t go wearing the character’s heart on his sleeve, begging for our sympathy. As such, he achieves a kind of purity to his performance that’s admirable. And there IS good stuff here: in particular, Max’s dramatic productions – of “Serpico” and a Viet Nam play he wrote himself – are a hoot. Also, the film benefits from a sharp and playful editing style, as well as a great soundtrack (featuring, curiously enough, mostly mid-sixties pop tunes by the likes of the Who, the Kinks, the Faces and the Rolling Stones).
But, ultimately, the film cannot rise above the fact that its central story – the relationship between Max and Herman, and their separate attempts to woo an attractive teacher at Rushmore – is just not strong enough or well thought out enough to hinge a movie on. The role of the teacher, Ms. Cross, is particularly ill-conceived and underwritten; we get no sense of what it is about her that is so endearing to the male leads. With Max this isn’t so much a problem, as it can be chalked up to youthful infatuation, but what exactly does Herman see in her? And, more importantly, what does she see in HIM (she does, after all, return his affections)? The point is, the filmmakers do such a poor job in sketching out the grownup characters in the first place, that we have no real way of knowing just what kind of person or what kind of traits they would be attracted to anyway.
If you want to see a slightly better than average teen flick, I suppose Rushmore fits the bill, but don’t expect much more than that. And Bill Murray fans should definitely save their money. If you want to see the Mur-man in a “mature” performance that’s truly worthy of his talents, check out Groundhog Day instead (and if you already have, then watch it again! There’s no way you can see this comic masterpiece too many times).
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (****)
I saw this letter coming. For those of you who weren’t drawn in yet to see the pairing of Hanks and Spielberg (the film equivalent of God and Jesus saying “Hey, let’s start a religion!”), you MUST SEE:
“SAVING Private Ryan”
This movie is bigger than all of us. I’ll will not give anything away. This movie has images that will haunt me forever involving stabbings, bombs and general carnage. This, without question, is the most “YOU ARE THERE” war movie I’ve ever seen (surpassing “Full Metal Jacket”). I really thought I was shot 5 or 6 times.
-I will not fight in a war.
-All veterans have my utmost respect.
-I didn’t finish my popcorn (rare, but it was tough to eat and gape at the most masterful technical handiwork in a film since “Schindler’s List” and “Goodfellas”)
Prepare yourself, this is the most BRUTAL film I’ve ever seen. Far more shocking in it’s violence and RELENTLESSNESS than anything else. Yet, as my friend Mike said, “Spielberg is amazing in his ability to evoke the kind of emotions that you don’t get in the majority of the films that make it to the screen today”. And he does it in the context of the most scattershot, hellfire, death-infested land there ever was.
The ending of the film is sheer brilliance and says more than a trillion English Patients.
You must go.
I’m not kidding around here.
It’s completely unwatchable in it’s graphic detail, yet totally mesmerizing and you CAN’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF IT!
Stop reading this and go buy a ticket.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (**1/2)
When I first heard about this movie I was very excited because I’m a huge fan of playwright Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the script. Also, it had a great premise: Shakespeare, at the beginning of his career, looking for that first big hit to really establish his name, is at work on his new play “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” He falls deeply in love/lust with Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and is motivated to write “Romeo and Juliet.”
As actually executed though, the film is. . . well, ok, but not nearly as good as it could have been and just waaaaaay overrated. First of all, Shakespeare as portrayed here is just a simp, all pointless motion and hot-blooded excitement – seemingly interested in scoring women and very little else. There’s no suggestion of the eloquence, the wit, or the sheer patience and craft that he would need if he was going to become what he did. In the role, Joseph Fiennes is a complete blank. This seriously undermines the film from the start: we don’t have to see the guy being a genius (after all, this IS supposed to be early in his career) but if we don’t at least get a glimpse of the potential, we can’t really buy it as Shakespeare – and the whole movie simply devolves into Hollywood actors running around with funny costumes on. (In only about five minutes of screen time, Rupert Everett, as Christopher Marlowe, completely blows Fiennes away in terms of poise, presence and sense of humor.)
All the other performances are fairly strong, causing Fiennes to further stick out like a sore thumb. Nowhere is this as true as with Gwyneth Paltrow. Since the Oscars, there’s been a big backlash against her and her performance here but COME ON, people! – this movie is unthinkable without her. I speak as someone who’d never been all that impressed with her (she was pretty enough, I thought, but as an actress a little bland) but after I saw her in this I became a believer. She has such a grace here, a presence that we don’t normally associate with actresses anymore – you’d have to go back to the days of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman to find a proper parallel. Absolutely enchanting – which is essential, because we must buy her as the muse to no less an artist than Shakespeare. I guess what I have to ask is, for all those people who didn’t like Paltrow and yet liked the movie – well, what exactly did you LIKE about it?
The script, I’m sure they’ll say. But if your two lead characters sink like a stone then exactly how good could you consider the script to be? In any case, I think there’s been too much said about this damn script – as if the real story wasn’t meant to be about Will and Violet (which doesn’t play convincingly), but about all those sly little jokes that the writers sneak into the margins of the screen. They’re not even that funny. The more Shakespeare you know, of course, the more of them you’ll likely get, but that still doesn’t mean you’ll laugh; I got several of them, and the most that ever happened was, I said “Oh yeah, I get that – I understand what they’re referencing.” It makes you feel intelligent, maybe, but it doesn’t give you any enjoyment. The film tries to be too “smart” when at its heart it’s just a dumb love story. Perhaps Stoppard was actually the wrong guy for this project – he’s too intelligent (anyone who doesn’t agree, just check out any of his wonderful plays – like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Travesties,” “Arcadia,” “The Real Inspector Hound” or any of over two dozen others). The guys behind “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun” would have been a much better choice. If they’d written it, this film might actually have been FUNNY. Dumb, certainly, but funny. As it is, this film walks a tightrope between silliness and profundity, never firmly registering in either, so never being really satisfying on any level.
It has its moments, and the radiant Gwyneth of course (as well as Judi Dench as a wonderful Queen Elizabeth; she absolutely stops the film whenever she appears which, alas, is not nearly enough) but it’s more of a disappointment than a treat.
SLEEPY HOLLOW (****)
I’ve always admired Tim Burton’s abilities as a visual stylist – his movies always have a unique and totally off the wall look – but I’ve never been truly satisfied with him as a director. His inability to tell a clear, focused story – or to get anything out of his actors except over the top performances – or to stage action in anything but a perfunctory manner. . . have always made him suspect to me. I felt his promotion to the rank of director was unwarranted – that he should instead be making his living as one of Hollywood’s most in demand cinematographers or production designers.
Having seen “Sleepy Hollow” though, I’d definitely have to say that Burton has made considerable progress. His distinctive visual touch is still present, though he has reigned in some of his wilder extravagances in order not to overwhelm the story. His ability to stage action sequences is much improved, resulting in some truly hair-raising chases and fight scenes (you’re left to wonder what his Batman films could have been with this new found talent). Furthermore, the relentless jokiness that usually undermines his movies has been replaced by a brooding and operatic tone which better fit the story. For example, the flashback sequences here provide some of the most haunting and poetic images Burton has ever created – and they feel sincere, as if they come from a very deep and genuine place inside the filmmaker, and are not just flung at us to dazzle and tickle us with his visual ingenuity.
All of which is not to say that Burton is no longer any fun. It’s just that he has put his humor into better perspective. There are many nice wry touches in “Sleepy Hollow”, none more so than in Johnny Depp’s truly outstanding performance, which straddles the poles of absurd comedy and genuine heroism. Even as we come to feel for Ichabod Crane and to admire his steeliness and pluck, we are never far removed from laughter at the character’s prissiness and squeamishness. Depp walks a real tightrope act here, and it will probably not be to everyone’s taste. I thought it was one of the best performances of the year, and represented a perfect marriage between Burton’s tendency toward campy theatrics and his newfound maturity and grace.
Some caveats: Christina Ricci is not used particularly well here; her part is too blandly written to give her prickly screen persona much room to breathe. Too bad, as she would make an ideal Burton heroine (I hasten to add that every other single actor in the movie – including Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough and yes, even Christopher Walken in a wordless cameo – is solid). And what’s with this story anyway? It’s a pointless bastardization of the original tale. While it’s true that the original is pretty threadbare, it is certainly suggestive enough that a writer could spin out compelling backstories and elaborations without having to resort to coming up with a completely new murder mystery plot (which is kind of overplotted and confusing, anyway). But, taken on its own merits, the script certainly works well enough, and anyone not familiar with the original story won’t notice anything amiss.
Ok, now that I’ve said all that – the real reason to see this movie. . . those decapitations! The advertising slogan was “Heads will roll” but never in my wildest imagination could I have guessed with what frequency and in how many different kinds of ways. Burton eschews realism or gory details here, and instead goes for a stylization that is at once giddy, horrifying and strangely beautiful. The fact that each decapitation is played slightly differently – either in how it’s shot or how it’s perpetrated – keeps it from becoming routine and, indeed, every instance of it involves some new kind of twist or surprise. Some may say Burton is sick for focusing so much attention on this aspect of the story, but this IS the Headless Horseman after all, and Burton’s courage in not backing away from his grisly deeds gives the monster his full due. Although I wouldn’t call the film frightening exactly (that is, to anyone but the most absolutely faint-hearted), it is suffused with a powerful sense of creepiness and dread that prove extremely effective.
All in all, a very enjoyable movie, and a signal of even better works yet to come from Tim Burton.
SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT (****)
I want to recommend THE movie-going experience of the year to you.
I, quite simply, laughed my damn ass off when I went to see “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”. So far, it is the BEST film I’ve seen this year. Sounds like strange praise for a fart/vulgarity-fest. But this movie is the most ripe, most pointed, most successful satire I’ve seen since the Zucker Brothers. And, other films I may have mentioned, as good as they are, cannot be BEST film of the year because of Keanu Reeves.
As New City Chicago put it, you cannot be prepared for the offensiveness. Yet, all the film’s targets either deserve it, or are over-the-top satire that WORKS. You name it, they satirize it: Satan, Hussein, Broadway, Rankin/Bass, Disney. And mostly, they rip apart that retarded notion that all things entertaining have to cater to “THE CHILDREN”. Anyone who’s read my previous rants knows that I’m a big supporter of rated R movies being for adults. It’s not FOR kids, so screw the little bastards! They have their own programming, they can’t have it all.
If you ever saw “The Spirit of Christmas”, the original South Park short where Santa and Jesus duke it out to see who Christmas is really about, then you must see “Bigger, Longer and Uncut”. Parker and Stone have re-captured the flavor of that short 100%. Plus, it’s got Terrance and Philip, what more do you need.
It’s frenetically paced, it has GREAT musical numbers and dammit, it’s just funny as shit!!!!!!!!
It’s been 12 years since I saw a movie THREE times in one week. I’ve been thrice to South Park. Trust me, you’ll piss yourself.
PS – there are farts-a-plenty.
STAR WARS, EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE. THE TRAILER. (****)
It is time…
It is time to talk about the “Star Wars” trailer. So if anyone here avoids seeing and talking about new footage before seeing the film (like many of my “Star Trek” friends do), then stop reading and delete this now
Let me say this much, if you plan to kill yourself, put it off until May 22nd because the 2 minute trailer for “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” is just about the most kick-ass piece of film I’ve seen this year, and you will need to see it before you die. From what that trailer shows, this new film will be reason for living. Those two minutes alone beat the snot out of the entire film “Deep Impact”.
I’m now going to over-analyze the hell out of it. I’ve been waiting 15 years for this film!!! First off, casting. Liam Neeson looks really great. Alec Guiness pretty much set the standard for how a Jedi Knight should come across. He should be commanding physically, and he has to have a British wisdom present in his speech. Neeson has that. The look, with the long hair and beard is a fantastic touch. I expect him to kick much ass. And I’m also left wondering who he is. The preview doesn’t let you know. Is he a random Jedi? Anakin’s guardian? We’ll find out soon. Ewan MacGregor looks great, too. The couple shots of him with a light-saber really exude “hero” and “tough bastard”. I’m excited to see him in action. Samuel L. Jackson’s mere presence is an asset, but he has only a few seconds to get what he’s all about. I believe he heads up the Jedi Council. The jury’s out on Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd, who don’t get to do much in the two minute trailer.
Next up, special FX. There is so much to look at in EVERY frame of this preview. If the “Star Wars” films are about anything, they’re about locale. In three films, we’ve seen an ice planet, a desert planet, a forest moon, etc. This preview gives us some sort of regal palace and I want to know more of what that place is about. That’s what this preview did to me all the time, if I may tangent. I want to know who that red and black-faced dude is, who the girl in the window of the palace is, who the different aliens are, what is that thing chasing Liam Neeson through the forest with about 8 other alien creatures running alongside him? what? What? WHAT???!!! Anyway, back to FX, that Liam and the creatures shot is a good example of FILLING THE FRAME with new things to see. Even the spaceport they’re in (might be Tatooine) has things flying around every corner! Now, there are many CGI FX in this trailer. There are some who are naysayers of this technique, and for good reasons. It has only been used effectively by Spielberg and Cameron. I doubt Lucas will misuse it. It seems there is a whole character, a sidekick (probably good for as many jokes as R2-D2 and C3PO used to provide. I’ll be worried if he provides MORE than enough jokes, I’d rather more action than jokes) who is computer generated. He’s the guy getting zapped by the land speeder. Should be interesting. But I think we’ll see quality along the lines of “Jurassic Park”’s dinosaurs and not Dr. Moreau’s creatures. And with the jump back chronologically, we’re going to be introduced to new spaceships, a new, 2-edged light saber, & new droids. The glimpses of which made me want more (the purpose of any good preview, by the way…SUCCESS!)
More positive stuff:
– John Williams is a LEGEND. Doesn’t that music just do all the freaking out for you?!?!?!?!?!?!
– I heard somewhere that the devil-looking guy is a Sith Lord. Sounds cool.
– “Anakin Skywalker, this is Obi-Wan Kenobi” – is there any more heartbreaking, exciting, goose-pimply phrase on film this year? They might as well add “who you’re going to kill when you grow up” to the end of that. I mean this promises to be an action-packed sci-fi temple of worship, but pretty somber series of films, emotionally. We’ll probably grow to like Anakin Skywalker (his eyes-open-with-wonder-mouth-agape shot of him in the cockpit of a starfighter is awesome), only to watch him turn evil. We’ll get to enjoy watching the Jedis kick ass only to have them die out (except for Obi-Wan). And basically, the Empire will rule right before “A New Hope”, or “Star Wars”. The birth of Luke Skywalker will be a turning point, and the rebels first victories will be rootable, but pretty grim otherwise.
– It is impossible to not like the Darth Vader breathing mechanism sound effect looming in the beginning titles of that preview. That was sweet music. And also the poster for this movie speaks volumes. LOVE IT!!
– There should be a Yoda cameo in EVERY movie preview.
Basically, this preview makes “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” look HUGE. The movie will be bigger than God. George Lucas owns all of us! It really looks EXCITING, a high-tech joyride.
I CAN’T WAIT !!!!!
But, alas, I will have to, and in the meantime, you will all get to see me act like a 13 year old Paul Preston waiting impatiently to see “Return of the Jedi”.
STAR WARS, EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE (**1/2)
**** Do not read this until you have seen “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”. I’m giving away plot points during the course of my “I’ll admit I have no life over-dissection” of the film.****
I’ve been waiting 16 years to see the further adventures of George Lucas’ universe. I mean, I was 13, I cried when “Return of the Jedi” ended. (I even cried after “Empire”, I thought Han was dead, I didn’t understand the whole “frozen” thing till a second viewing. I was 10, what the hell?!) I knew that my time with these characters was over, done. No more Han Solo or Darth Vader. No more Luke Skywalker or Chewbacca. And I was an impressionable son-of-a-bitch! Han Solo was an ICON! The ultimate in cool, quick, rugged GUY. So, for the next 6 years I followed Indiana Jones. The ’90s haven’t been as good for heroes. Sure, the “Star Wars” characters had further adventures in books (the Timothy Zahn series is especially good) and they had MILLIONS of adventures in my driveway in miniature. So, “The Phantom Menace” means alot to me. I mean R2-D2 in another movie, how cool is that?!?!?! Karen and I were in NY City from April 29th to May 11th. Tickets for “Star Wars, Episode 1” went on sale May 12th. So I called in from NY to see how the line was in front of McClurg Court Cinema 1, the finest in action/adventure experience in Chicago. There were already a couple dozen people in line. Well, the fates were with me (or was it The Force) when I called in on 5/12 to get tix. The line by 10AM had grown to some 250 people. I cannot believe I avoided a logjam and actually got thru to Moviefone. I got tix for opening day, 7:15 PM. We arrived at 5PM to get the best seats, and the crew at McClurg was handling the lines surprisingly well. We were 3rd row center ready to be blasted into oblivion. I didn’t succumb to the hype, I was the hype.
Enough about me. Let’s talk about the film. I have to admit I was equal parts thrilled and disappointed. I received an e-mail from a friend of mine, who we’ll leave unnamed and simply refer to him as “Mike Rivera”, that said: “the [films have the] unfortunate task of living up to the first series of films, an expectation that is undoubtedly unfair.” Two years ago I had a conversation over the phone with my friend (who we’ll call “Paul Viggiangelo”) about “Independence Day”, a trite piece of silly putty where people don’t take the death of 20 million people seriously. He didn’t like the film because it failed to live within the parameters it created for itself! Example – The aliens can travel 1 million light years, but can’t fight a computer virus. LAME. This is now something I look for in all science fiction I watch. I didn’t like it because of something ALL action movies have these days. An overwhelming lack of fear. You’ve got to go back to “Jurassic Park” in 1993 to find an action movie that had a real terrifying presence, (specifically the T-Rex and raptors. (Then again, Paul would probably bring up the parameters thing about the electric fence…but still, you can’t deny the unpredictability and sheer blood-thirsty nature of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World”). This makes the conquering of those things all the more meaningful, and their rampaging all the more affecting. “Armageddon”, “Godzilla”, “Independence Day”, they’re all missing any sense of fear. So, if Lucas wanted to live up to the first series of films, he should’ve injected a little more fear into a movie with the word “Menace” in it, ’cause the original trilogy had fear to spare. Onward…
– The Pod Racing. This is a wonderfully imaginative action scene. It is an impressive technical achievement and fully realized event for the planet Tatooine. I loved the rickety, self-made, put-together-from-spare-parts feel of the racers. Plus, their EXTREME speed is matched in movies only by the forest bikes of “Return of the Jedi”. The Pod Races brought a wonderful sense of malevolence and maliciousness that I thought was needed in more of the film. When one of the Pods explodes and pieces of it go flying into the crowd, I was thrilled by that unpredictability. And the SINGLE FUNNIEST THING I’ve seen in about a year in ANY movie, was the Tusken Raider cameo. First off, it was cool to see them in the first place, then THEY TOOK RANDOM POT SHOTS AT THE RACERS!!!!! THAT WAS HILARIOUS!!! And, that’s exactly what they’d do! Well done, nice truth to character. Also, the sound effects were especially effective, even occasionally sounding like the engines “chug”, almost like they run on steam. They don’t of course, but I like the sound effect. Lastly, I really enjoyed the jawa saying “OOO-TEE-DEE!”. I enjoy saying that myself.
– Jedis kicking ass. There’s nothing cooler. Mel Gibson is one of my favorite actors, and I think I enjoy him so much because of the intense focus he brings to any character. There is usually a pretty single-minded purpose to his focus. In “Braveheart”, it was freeing Scotland, in “Ransom”, it was finding his children’s kidnappers, in “Payback”, it was getting his 70,000 dollars. There is something VERY exciting about watching a very focused character go about persuing his goals. That same excitement I found in Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson’s character. He was credits-to-credits EXCELLENT in this movie. He and McGregor both gave us a great idea of what Jedis are like in their prime. In the first trilogy, all we get Jedi-wise is one in training, one who’s evil, and two who are old. My friend, who we’ll call Adam Witt, summed it up best when he said the Galactic Senate heard about the invasion of Naboo and said “Well, let’s send two Jedis”. TWO!!! How cool is it that that’s all you need to tame an entire army. I wanted more, but really dug what I saw. It was even fun to see Qui-Gon have to use general wits to defeat Watto, and free Anakin from slavery. He couldn’t use a mind trick or brute force. Neeson was great.
– The Jedis vs. Darth Maul. “The Phantom Menace” ended much like “Return of the Jedi”, with three battles taking place at once. In “Jedi”, it was Luke and Vader, the battle of Endor and the Falcon’s charge on the Death Star. In “Menace”, it was the space battle to take down the Federation ship, the battle of Naboo, and the Jedi’s battle with Maul. At the end of “Star Wars”, the trek to blow up the Death Star was taken very seriously, and all the players knew the stakes, and there was great sacrifice to get the job done. This same purposeful intent and “classic battle”-feeling was carried throughout the light saber duel, and it worked hugely. There was much talk afterwards about it:
> Why didn’t Qui-Gon Jinn fade away after being killed by Maul? We’ll call Sandy Marshall “Mr. X”, to hide his identity, and Mr. X theorized that it’s because he had unfinished business in his life. Yoda and Obi-Wan had trained future Jedis and completed their duties as Jedis themselves. Good theory.
> What a strange thing, being a Jedi. I remember Luke throwing his saber away in front of the Emperor, refusing to fight. So, basically, if it weren’t for Anakin returning from the Dark Side and disposing of the Emperor, Luke would be dead and that’d be it for the Rebellion. Interesting, then, that Obi-Wan wins his battle against Maul with ferocity, skill and a little bit of anger and revenge. Don’t know what this all means, but I thought about it alot.
> How cool that Jinn meditated when boxed in that force field, and Maul paced like a caged animal. That said a lot about the characters. And naturally, Jinn’s death set up a lot of Kenobi’s future actions. Random thought: Wouldn’t Anthony Hopkins be great on the Jedi Council? He may not even have to play a character, just be Anthony Hopkins. Hey look, there’s Yoda, Mace Windu and Sir Anthony Hopkins!
– The space politics. A guy who’s name I can’t remember now, so we’ll just call him Rob Kozlowski, said he really enjoyed the way Lucas set up a Universe teetering on the brink of collapse, anyone could overthrow it with enough will (and enough Dark Side). I agree. I also enjoyed the Senate Council where people floated on pods and stated their case to General Zod (“Kneel before Zod!!!!”). In future viewings, look for a pod full of Wookies and E.T.s stating their case. But the slyness with which Palpatine assumes political power was fun to watch. When he combines this power with the Dark Side, all hell’s gonna break loose.
– The worlds. Right when you think there’s no where for these movies to go (we’ve been in a desert, ice planet, forest moon, cloud city, and swamp world), he finds new places – underwater, a Royal palace and a planet that’s one GIANT city. These were very realized worlds and HUGE eye candy.
Did anyone else come out of this movie saying “More Darth Maul, Less Jar-Jar Binks”? I certainly did. Jar-Jar was annoying as hell, and I don’t agree that he’s there to counter the space politics that kids won’t care about. I mean, I’m sure he is, but what a disappointment that Lucas can’t just find that stuff interesting enough without a computer-game saying stuff like “Ek-squeeze Me?”. WEAK. I’m mostly shocked because there was NO character like him in the previous films. If the Ewoks were annoying, at least they didn’t speak English and provide jokey slapstick scenes. Everyone just thought they were overly cute. And who did his voice, a guy with three tongues and a mouth full of butterscotch? They should’ve just gone all the way with a jibberish language and subtitles. And Jar-Jar was poorly directed. He often provided the last line of a scene, and it was usually a dud before we edited away to another scene. He just wasn’t any fun, I enjoyed the more high-brow comic relief of C-3PO and R2D2 much more.
– Pandering. Speaking of comic relief, Lucas pandered to kiddie sensibilities one too many times in “The Phantom Menace”. I said how much I liked the light saber duel, I wish I could say the same about the battle on Naboo. Jar-Jar hanging from the battle tanks being all wacky is so removed from the seriousness with which past battles were taken. That was distracting. Lines like “Crunch Time!”, “Are you Brain-Dead?”, “Ek-Squeeze Me?”, “That’s gotta hurt” and “Jar-Jar, you in deep doo-doo!” were dumb. Especially because they don’t live in the world Lucas created (see “Independence Day”). The closest they ever got before was “laugh it up, Fuzzball”, now it’s as if Jar-Jar and other characters watch MTV for lines like that. Bogus. Especially guilty was the two-headed commentator of the Pod Races. Why spoil such exciting action with a lame-brained character? The voice was just rotten. Oh, wait. If I remember correctly, I heard a 5-year old laugh at “you in deep doo-doo”. Well, when I saw “Star Wars”, Lucas played above my supposed intelligence level and I rose to the occasion, now he makes cheaper moves to beg for the young people to dig it. George, they love your shit already, play it straight, they’ll follow along.
– CGI. I said that computers took us to wonderful worlds, created great droids that looked and acted real, and provided a pretty exciting space battle. HOWEVER, I was never emotionally attached to ANY computer-generated character during the course of this film. I guess the closest was Watto, but I thought the Cheech Marin voice they gave him could’ve been more other-worldly, and Sebulba, who seemed pretty creepy. Boss Nass of the Gungans, Jar-Jar (of course) and all his people, and the animated Jabba just didn’t cut it. I remember feeling things for Chewbacca, caring about what he got himself into, and Jabba the Hutt in “Return of the Jedi”. These computer characters do nothing for me. I think they OVERact, and just don’t look real. So, for me, computers do much for visuals, little for characters.
– The Viceroy. Adam told me he thought these guys were just a couple of power-hungry guys who probably shouldn’t have messed with the Dark Side. True, but did they have to be total buffoons? I wish they didn’t sound like George Takei with a sock in his mouth, too. I’d rather trade those guys with the faulty mouths in for a few of the steely-eyed, cold and calculated Imperial-type humans. This is a tricky situation, though, ’cause I’m glad they weren’t CGI, but I’m pissed that they were such weak characters, etc., etc. This is a lasting debate.
– No fear. Maul didn’t have enough screen time. The battle droids for the Federation just weren’t effective enough to be afraid of. They never accomplished anything….ever. Even if you say they captured the Gungan army and that was effective, I think Sidious said to “Wipe them out”. Why take prisoners? A fact brought up by a mysterious figure named Steve Matuszak. We never got to know the Federation ships quite like we knew TIE fighters, so no real fear of them was established. Plus, Anakin defeated their biggest ship by accident practically. Is he really a hero? Not that “The Phantom Menace” has to be “Aliens” or anything, but couldn’t there be a little more sacrifice? Just one dead Gungan, that’s all I ask. Alright, specifically Jar-Jar. In fact, the most fun we had after the movie was thinking of ways for him to die.
Alright, my fingers are bleeding.
I’d LOVE to talk more about this. Gimme a call, but have a great long-distance provider. I liked alot in the film and wanted more of what I liked. Overall, however, **1/2
Count me in line for Episode 2!
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (****)
Alright, those of you who know me well are saying “Is this going to be a weekly column?” Well, no, but I had to write again to say GO SEE THIS:
“THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY”
Hands down the funniest movie of the year and one of the funniest movies I have EVER SEEN!!! To tempt you with a joke from the movie would be to give away too much. This flick has at least 12 MAJOR LAUGH scenes. Something I haven’t seen since “A Fish Called Wanda.” I see no reason why this can’t be a classic like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack”. In fact, “Mary” goes further, does more outrageous things and has bigger balls than either of those “classics”. This movie has things in it that you’ve NEVER seen before, guaranteed.
This is the Farrelly Bros. best film, too. They just keep getting better. It’s funnier than “Kingpin” and “Dumb & Dumber”. I love the fact that they bring BIG performances out of B-list Hollywood stars like Ben Stiller (the best loser in years), Randy Quaid and Jeff Daniels.
This movie is F**kin’ hilarious, Go NOW (before “Saving Private Ryan” comes out and I have to write again….)
A SECOND OPINION…
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (***)
This film contains two of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in my life (they both involve the dog) and the ending is clever and sweet, but as for the rest. . . I don’t get what all the hosannas are about. The film’s actually pretty plodding and slow-moving and there are long, loooong stretches where there are no laughs at all. As for the two most infamous scenes – the “frank and beans” debacle and the bit with the hair gel – they’re not really done that well: the joke is too obvious and the timing is terrible. I think, in general, the Farrelly brothers lack the kind of light touch that is necessary for comedy (yes, even gross-out comedy), and their movies (including Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin) tend to consist of long set-ups for jokes that are sometimes funny but most often not. And even when they’re funny, you can’t quite forget how long the set up was, and wonder why the pacing couldn’t be better and more assured.
Anyway, I don’t want to rip on this movie too much – it’s got a good spirit, the entire cast is appealing (if rather unexceptional) and there’s even a nice little message underneath it all. As light entertainment you could do a lot worse, but you may be left wondering what all the big fuss was about. Lower your expectations just a bit and you should enjoy it just fine.
TO DIE FOR
There are some good things here – most notably the performances of Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix – that nevertheless fail to coalesce into a satisfying whole because of the confusion of the central story. Kidman is great as the feather-brained harpy who will stop at nothing to be on television – the absolute narrowness of her world-view to the parameters of what fits onto the TV screen makes her a kind of female counterpart to Jim Carrey’s Cable Guy. But her single-minded devotion to this aim causes her subsequent actions to make little sense: would someone as ambitious as her really stick around in a nowhere New England town (humorously named Little Hope) rather than set out for the big time of New York or Los Angeles? Such a transplant would have given the movie a kick, since it would have set Suzanne’s fundamental cluelessness against the reality of the television industry and how it actually works (to perhaps more humorous results than are displayed here).
But even if you can buy Suzanne remaining in her isolated little hamlet (and it must be said that the setting does allow for some subtler, more understated humor than the scenario drawn above would have), does it make any sense whatsoever for her to get involved with, much less marry, the Matt Dillon character? If we’re really supposed to buy her as someone who thinks about nothing but television and making it in that medium, then what could she possibly see in Dillon, who is barely even familiar with TV? Any explanation would probably be lame, but what’s lamer is the fact that the filmmakers don’t even try to supply one! This leaves you with the sick feeling that it only happens in order to get the plot moving – the worst possible reason for ANYTHING to happen!
This fundamental flaw in plot logic really sinks the movie before it even has time to get going. That’s a shame, because there are SO MANY good things here: Kidman’s performance is wonderfully perky and shallow in all the right ways, and the candy-colored outfits that have been designed for her are a scream just in themselves. The narrative style is inventive, being told in flashback as a series of interviews – “Hard Copy” style, or even “Oprah” style – with the main participants, which in itself forms a meta-critique upon television and its reconstruction of the world (although, curiously, the film keeps dropping in and out of this style, and so waters down its effect). Finally, Phoenix is at once both hilarious and heartbreaking in his portrayal of a trailer park teenager so besotted with Kidman and the sophistication she supposedly represents (the joke’s on him, of course) that he’d literally do anything for her, which is exactly his undoing. Watching him, I kept thinking of Dustin Hoffman’s groundbreaking performance in The Graduate and how it operated on the twin levels of satire and true sympathy all at once. Phoenix, in my opinion, hits the same bulls-eye.
Other enjoyable performances come from Ileana Douglas as Dillon’s sister, wonderfully nasty and sarcastic when discussing Kidman (and then surprisingly touching and vulnerable when you’re least expecting it) and Wayne Knight as the head of the cable station where Suzanne comes to work. If you know Knight only as Newman on TV’s “Seinfeld” and so believe him only capable of wild over-acting, his performance here is a treat: his baffled and understated responses to Suzanne’s dippy ideas and shenanigans are some of the funniest things in the picture.
But in the end it all comes to nothing. The good things in this movie just can’t salvage the fact that the central story has not been worked out with enough rigor. The film spins its wheels beautifully, but it simply has nowhere to go.
TOP TEN OF 1999
10. “Bowfinger” – Any time Steve Martin returns to top form, it makes my list (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, “Roxanne”, “All of Me”). Call me biased, but the guy is genius to me. And he’s had such a drought
lately, I’m thrilled that this picture made $80 million! Plus, it’s Eddie Murphy’s best performance(s) in years. He absolutely KILLS as both Kit and Jiff. It’s getting so Frank Oz can do no wrong.
9. “American Beauty” – A great film with a where’s-it-gonna-go-next? final half hour. You also can’t beat the dead-guy-as-narrator approach that’s worked since “Sunset Boulevard”. I only wish there was more Lester. Spacey was great. This film also has Chris Cooper’s best performance (as Spacey’s Marine neighbor).
8. “Being John Malkovich” – If someone gave me the plot idea that you could go into John Malkovich’s head for 15 minutes, I probably wouldn’t have created the absolutely MESSED UP love triangle that exists in this film. Malkovich himself is having more fun than ever, and Cusack’s loser is one for the books. It’s ending reminded me of “The Fly”. TOTALLY original stuff.
7. “The Insider” – A lengthy film that felt 60 Minutes long. Pacino is in “sedate” mode, and it totally serves his scenes with Russell Crowe, who lives up to the potential he showed in his earlier films like “Romper Stomper”. If you hate the cigarette industry (like I do, and that may, again, make me biased), this really fuels the fire.
6. “Fight Club” – The most UNDERRATED film of 1999. It has a twist in it that isn’t quite as satisfying as the one in “The Sixth Sense”, but it is a marvel in it’s hyperkinetic style. All hail the year that gets good performances (which they’re capable of ) from Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves. Pitt let go of that stuffiness that didn’t really suit him in “Meet Joe Black” and “Seven Years in Tibet” and gives a swaggering, macho BS performance that is really intoxicating. And Edward Norton is the usual bedrock of the story. This plot
is almost unimaginable, that’s a wonderful trait of all the best films from this year. I love to leave a film and say “Where the hell did they come up with that?”
5. “Election” – Funny, funny, funny. If you haven’t seen this – DO. If you haven’t seen “Citizen Ruth” -DO. Alexander Payne is making the most intelligent adult comedies today. It soared above all the teen tripe this year (“Cruel Intentions”, “10 Things I Hate About You”, “Varsity Blues”), and shows you what school is REALLY all about. Broderick and Witherspoon are great.
4. “Magnolia” – People often say that PT Anderson “fed his ego” with this film. I was enthralled from beginning to end. And the beginning of this film is a more impressive achievement than half the crap studios churn out in a year’s time. EVERYONE in the movie is worthy of a supporting actor/actress Oscar. He pulls from the best talent pool – Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C.
Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall gives his career performance as a talk-show host who’s life is crumbling. There is much to talk about concerning this film that can’t be mentioned until you see it. Let me know if you have!
3. “Toy Story 2” – No question as good as the original. This is the kind of film all animated movies should be. Smart enough for the adults, so it trickles down to the children. DO NOT CONDESCEND. So far, Pixar’s formula of keepin’-it-smart is paying off. Randy Newman has his best shot ever at an Original Song Oscar here with “When she loved me”. These characters really ACT, and the results get more impressive with every film.
2. “The Sixth Sense” – The second-highest grossing film of the year, and for good reason. How can you not see it again! There has never been a more DELIBERATE film. There is no excess in this movie, and it lives, really LIVES in the rules it creates for itself. I was knocked-out impressed by the success of writer/director M. Night Shymalan. This is a beautiful love story.
1. “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” – The last great musical of the Millenium. I cannot say how smart this film is. I was wildly impressed by their skewering of EVERYTHING! Literally, EVERYTHING gets hammered, from Bryan Adams to “Star Wars” to Disney. And there’s more to see every time you watch it. I could go on. I attached myself to this film more than any other this year. Quite often satire fails miserably, this film deserves any success it gets.
One theme I found most prevalent in the great films of 1999 is that of the male in decline. Lester in “American Beauty” is just a mess. He is considered even worse when he starts to make himself happy. (By the way, my one problem with the film is the Three’s Company-esque “misunderstanding” the neighbor has. Granted, with more dire repercussions, but it still seems like “Oh, no, he only knows half of what’s really going on!” was a little much.)
Nevertheless, the waning male theme continues in “Election”. Here’s a lousy sap of a man who’s life is in the toilet and he doesn’t even know it. He sees his entire meddling with the school students and his affair as perfectly just things to do. When in reality, it’s nuts. He’s the man as terrible decision-maker. Then there’s “Fight Club”, a wall-to-wall, credits-to-credits trashing of the current, pussified state of the male ego. Two actors presenting the varied states of a machismo with no outlet, have to create one for themselves. Then “Being John Malkovich” has women undergoing incredible changes when presented with the mind-entering porthole’s power. Cusack’s character starts a loser, and actually ends a BIGGER loser. He’s the man as absloutely pathetic. In “Magnolia”, men flock to hear Tom Cruise talk about how grand the penis is. I particularly enjoyed this ’cause I was waiting for the “Fight Club”-esque comment that these classes were to reinforce a weakened male persona, but it turns out Cruise was merely pro-SEX. Hilarious.
So there’s an essay for ya.
The worst films of the year:
– “Big Daddy” – Not funny at all, AND it had the balls to try and be EMOTIONAL at the end and FAILED MISERABLY. Not a decent actor in the cast.
– “The Blair Witch Project” – What a concept!! What a poor execution of that concept. IN MY HUMBLE OPINION As I’ve said before, Macauley Culkin got lost in NY, that wasn’t scary either…
– “Random Hearts” – you have to know how much this hurts to say. Boring, boring, boring, with some of the worst dialogue I’ve EVER heard – awkward and unbeleivable.
– “Inspector Gadget” – an overblown waste. WORSE than a video.
Then, of course, there are films that are sure to be bad, so I avoided them:
“The Mod Squad”
and when’s “The Bachelor” opening anyway?
TOY STORY 2 – ***
Don’t have any major axe to grind with this one; it’s an enjoyable and entertaining movie, perfect for the whole family. Go see it. But please don’t make the ridiculous claim – which is spreading like wildfire these days – that it’s better than the first one. The first one had the true spark of originality – this one is a mere updating, a scrupulous ploy to revisit all the good bits pioneered by its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong – it does an exceedingly good job of this, and finds creative and imaginative ways to recycle the material without making the audience feel that it’s just seeing the same old thing again (I particularly liked the way it worked in a SECOND Buzz Lightyear action figure, so that we could have the fun all over again of a Buzz totally clueless as to his own doll-hood). But, really, when you get right down to it, we ARE seeing the same old thing again: the characters haven’t expanded or grown any (how can they, after all – they’re TOYS!!) and the plot mechanism is exactly the same – a daring rescue mission to save a toy in trouble. And it suffers the same malady which infects every sequel, the desire to do everything bigger and more opulently, which undermines the low-key charm the original had. Instead of staying within the parameters of the neighborhood and a back-yard world, TS2 takes its heroes, more improbably (and impersonally), through crowded city streets, local shopping malls, high-rise office buildings, and finally into the bowels of a large modern airport. All of this is done with wit and originality, but it seemed to contradict the fundamental premise of the first one, which is that any step outside of the bedroom is a dangerous and unlikely one for a toy to make. What’s more, the egregious Sarah McLachlan song in the middle of the movie is one of the most lachrymose bits of over-stated sentimentality ever seen in a Disney movie and almost made me want to bolt from the theater in disgust. The first movie had nothing so wildly embarrassing (the Randy Newman songs being utterly perfect).
The moral quandary Woody faces here is interesting, but it’s almost too big a theme to introduce into a story of this nature. Does he opt for long-lasting renown as a “classic” toy and allow himself to be enshrined in the museum, or does he accept the built-in obsolescence to which a return to Andy’s bedroom ultimately consigns him? This isn’t a clear-cut, black-and-white issue, though the movie ultimately turns it into one. I found myself feeling sorry for the Stinky Pete character, who was supposed to be the villain but in actuality made some pretty good, hard-to-refute points about the ephemeral nature of being a mere child’s plaything. You might say I was thinking about this too hard, but the story premise is an intriguing one, and seems to invite more allegorical and philosophical speculation than it delivers; it pulls back in the end and reverts to its big adventure chase mechanics. It seems to me that the first Toy Story did not make this fundamental mistake of biting off more than it could chew; plot, theme, and action were all perfectly integrated in that movie, making it truly one of the minor classics of our age.
Anyway – just needed to get that all off my chest. TS2 is an enjoyable movie, no question about it, one of the best of the year. But because of the absolute perfection of its predecessor, I just couldn’t help feeling it was somewhat hollow and regurgitated. Here’s hoping that Pixar does the smart thing and puts Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang permanently away in some digital toybox somewhere, letting them live on forever in the shimmering perfection of our memories.
THE TRUMAN SHOW (****)
I believe that, in the future, when the 90s are looked back upon, “The Truman Show” will be seen as one of its truly representative films, not only for its high quality but for its unerring evocation of one of the most prominent themes of our times: the out of control nature of the media, and its invasion of our personal lives. Think about how many movies over this past decade have used this theme as a jumping off point: “Natural Born Killers”, “Mad City”, “Wag the Dog”, “To Die For”, “The Cable Guy”, “Quiz Show”, “EdTv”, . . I could go on, but you get the idea. “The Truman Show” towers over all these films because instead of being a polemic, it casts its story in the form of a fable; you’re free to buy what’s happening as “real” or simply metaphorical, and the story works equally well either way. Because there’s no direct reference to any current media images (no MTV or CNN or Jay Leno monologues about Truman and his life) the story exists outside of time – it could take place either in the future, a fictionalized present, or an imagined past: it’s never made clear and it doesn’t matter. By not trying to be up to the minute, “The Truman Show” succeeds in being timeless.
However, that is only one of its many successes. The story manages to be involving on the levels of drama and comedy simultaneously. Truman’s dilemma is always achingly real to him, and yet as spectators we can’t help but see how funny are the preposterous ways in which the situation is kept going (the posters in the travel agency, for example, or the teacher telling Truman “You’re too late, everything’s been discovered already.”). To be sure, it’s a sinister humor, one that chills at the same time it amuses. It reminded me at times of the coldness and bemused misanthropy pervading such Kubrick films as “Lolita”, “Dr. Strangelove”, and “2001”. And yet, amazingly, at the same time it also had – through Truman – a hopefulness and a wonderment that was reminiscent of the very best of Spielberg. Now, I can’t think of two directors who are more different from one another, and by evoking both, the film shows an almost unparalleled range and vision.
I’d like to say Jim Carrey was a surprise here, but in fact he wasn’t, not to me anyway; from the time I saw him in “The Mask” (in his Stanley Ipkiss scenes) I always suspected he had a role like this in him. He’s effective and believable in a more toned-down part, although I believe that the role is such a gem – and so assured of audience sympathy – that nearly any actor could have played it and been equally effective. The true star here is the director, Peter Weir, who after this and Fearless must now be considered in the genius category. Not only does he create a compelling and totally believable world, but he uses camera angles in a sly and totally original way to subtly indicate to the audience the depth of surveillance involved in Truman’s world. And he comes up with a cornucopia of unforgettable images, all slightly surreal and menacing, while at the same time containing a strange and gripping beauty: the “sunset” scene where the sun and moon hang next to each other in the sky; the nighttime image of all the actors on the set, arm in arm, searching for Truman with guard dogs and flashlights (definite shades of both “Frankenstein” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”); the final scene of Truman, at the “ends of the earth” seemingly “walking on the water” (an image Magritte or Dali would have been proud to have painted); and, perhaps most memorably, the supremely surprising yet totally brilliant moment when the moon metamorphoses into a giant searchlight. Even out of context, these scenes have a stunning visual power, and add immensely to the film’s overall subject and theme.
But even if you’re not in the mood for a serious message, or a meditation upon the popular media and its role in our lives, it’s possible to enjoy “The Truman Show” on just the most basic level of an interesting story, well told. It’s a “quest” film, but because of the way it’s set up and its sly humor, it can also be enjoyed as a parody of a quest film (after all, it’s “only” a TV show). Its major themes can be taken as a parody of a movie that would like to have “major themes.” The film achieves this dual effect (significant and yet not significant) because of the way it refracts everything through the television lens – which, as we all know, trivializes every subject it encounters: yes, even a man’s quest to discover the meaning of his life and start entirely anew. The very final shot of the movie, which some people complain is too glib and abrupt, is actually perfect because it emphasizes this point with such deadly satirical force.
“The Truman Show”: entertaining, thought provoking, eerie, sad, triumphant – just about the most complete movie experience you could ever have. Definitely one of the classics, not only of our time, but of ALL time.
WILD AT HEART
This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.
When I try to choose my favorite Lynch film, it is impossible. Each one of them represents something unique and exquisite about David Lynch’s vision and his innate ability to dissect the human condition in a way no other director can. I can honestly say that “Wild at Heart” may be my favorite of Lynch’s and is quite possibly his most linear and romantic film. It is beautiful heartbreak on every level possible. Never have two screen characters been as captivating and convincing in their plight of the heart as Lula and Sailor. Lynch’s love for them beats strongly throughout the entire film and makes sure you never quite forget their spirit.
It has often been compared to the “Wizard of Oz” and there are many winks and nods to the film. Lula’s awful mother Marietta as the wicked witch, the red shoes that Lula wears, tapping them together at one point to send her home and Sheryl Lee as the good witch who speaks to Sailor about his destiny with Lula. These are the obvious similarities. Then there are more subtle ones such as Jack Nance’s quirky bit about his dog comparing him to Toto. Or the yellow dividing line that runs down the never ending road that Lula and Sailor are on. Not to mention the crazy characters they encounter along the way. But of course this is no child’s play. This is David Lynch. Therefore you can expect a much more twisted and deviant version. Sex, felonies, incest, murder, rape etc. That is what you will find on this yellow brick road.
The premise is simple. Sailor Ripley, accused of murdering a man with his bare hands in self-defense is placed in prison for attempted manslaughter. Meanwhile, his girl Lula waits patiently for her love to be sprung from the big house. Upon his release from prison, Lula and Sailor embark on a twisted journey trying to escape the devices of Marietta and ultimately to reach California. Now I could continue on with a play by play plot description but that seems senseless because I can only hope that you have seen this film. Therefore, let’s talk about some of the shining moments of strangeness in this film.
First of all, the cast is remarkable. The major players being Nicolas Cage as the moody Sailor Ripley, Diane Ladd in a horrifying performance as Lula’s sinister mother, Marietta Fortune and of course the luminous and brilliant Laura Dern as Lula Fortune. Let me say however that the secondary roles feature only the best: Isabella Rosselini, Crispin Glover (in one of my favorite vignettes), Harry Dean Stanton as Marietta’s chump and best on-screen crier, Johnnie Farragut, Jack Nance, John Lurie, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Grace Zabriskie as the disturbing and hypnotic Juana, Sherilyn Fenn, and, of course, Willem Dafoe as the unforgettable Bobby Peru. In every Lynch film there is that over the top, bizarre, horrific character that you never forget (i.e. Dennis Hopper in “Blue Velvet”, Robert Blake in “Lost Highway”) but Bobby Peru is an entirely different kind of monster in this film.
This movie is sewn together with so many delectable little pieces that every time I watch it I find something new. It’s almost epic that way. All of Lynch’s films are bent love stories that are never pure and simple but always deep and honest. “Wild at Heart”, I believe, is his heart. Laura Dern’s Lula is a character like none other. She is 100% out there and confident and unique and pure. Under all the lingerie, red lipstick and rebellion is a truly beautiful soul. Her love for Sail (as she calls him affectionately or desperately) is unrivaled. Her life up until him, although shiny on the outside, was full of truly horrible events, yet they never made her dysfunctional or jaded. She had the ability to look them in the eye, confront the demon and put it behind her. Like a stallion, she is free to experience life in all her glory. Laura Dern is a special actress and Lynch has a special place for her in his artistic vision. That is rare, and he has a knack for sniffing out that kind of talent.
During the roller coaster ride that is this film is a scene that to me is the climax, the defining moment and the definition of the way Lynch holds humanity as almost a sixth sense. It’s about halfway through the film. Lula and Sailor are driving at night on some lonely interstate where there is nothing around them and no other cars. To set the tone of the scene Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” plays softly in the background. Lula comments on the isolation of their surroundings while her blonde hair blows gently around her face. Sailor, harboring a deep secret, turns to her and tells her the truth. Prior to this moment, Lula’s love for Sailor is almost childlike and unconditional. But as the truth escapes his lips, you can actually see in her face that this has changed her life and her heart forever. “That’s some big secret you been keeping, Sail” are the words she utters as tears well up in her eyes. Because no matter what Lula has seen or been through, Sailor was always safe to her, and at that moment the naïve light in her eyes is snuffed ever so slightly. That scene is devastating to me. I cry every time I see it. Throughout all the madness, Lula’s belief in Sailor keeps her pure, almost untainted, and it’s painful to watch reality set in. The world is not a good place and now Lula knows.
It is this type of moment that places David Lynch at the top. His soul runs deep and he knows the truth about the world, but will always hold on to a little shred of optimism and share it with us reminding us that in the darkest of places there will always be love.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL – *1/2
*** This review contains spoilers ***
This movie is strange. Just weird. It would seem as if it’s trying to be a romantic comedy, and indeed that is what it was billed and sold as. (And it’s based on one of the best: the 1938 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan – an absolute gem of a movie if ever there was one.) But I’ll be damned if it plays out like one.
Now, I like Tom Hanks. I like Meg Ryan. I loved them together in Joe Versus the Volcano (I haven’t seen Sleepless in Seattle – and have no intention of ever doing so). But they completely fizzle here. It’s not really their fault. The script is so hard-wired to prevent any audience sympathy or interaction. The premise would appear to be golden: two people fall in love with one another via the Internet, only to realize that in real life they can’t stand each other. This is an intriguing set-up (and a savvy and intelligent update of Shop Around the Corner’s pen-pal conceit); the scenes where we hear (through voiceover) Tom and Meg’s communiques with each other are low-key and sweet. But. . . oh, there are so many “but”s – such as:
*Did the script really need to pair up the stars with respective live-ins (Greg Kinnear for her, Parker Posey for him)? These characters never get explored in the least, are blatant caricatures (he of N.Y. intelligentsia, she of the brash and crass world of publishing), and are dispensed of without any noticeable fanfare. What’s the point? Surely, having the leads be separated by not knowing each others’ identities should have been (and is) complication enough.
*Why is Hanks’ character privy to the secret identity of his e-mail partner so long before Ryan’s is? True, this development corresponds structurally to the one played out in Shop Around the Corner, but that’s not really a fair comparison. There, the entire movie was more or less seen through the eyes of Jimmy Stewart’s character, and our identification with him made us wonder how he would make use of his knowledge. Here, though, Hanks and Ryan are given equal weight and screen time; neither represents the definitive “perspective” through which the film is to be seen. As such, awarding his character knowledge which she does not possess strikes of a desire to play favorites – and wreaks havoc with the trajectory of the movie’s second half. It suddenly ceases being a movie about equals and becomes more about the deliberate manipulations and evasions of Tom Hanks’ character – making the whole thing seem insincere and smarmy, rather than fun or heart-warming.
*And speaking of smarmy, what’s with the moral of this story? Is there one?! I mean sure, going in, we more or less figure that there will be a sappy but endearing message about love winning out in the end over personal differences. Which we’re prepared for (and frankly, if you’re not, you’ve stepped into not only the wrong movie but the wrong genre). Since, in the film, Hanks and Ryan are the heads of rival bookstores – he a large and impersonal chain, she a small, independently owned neighborhood store catering lovingly to children – we get to see their personal peccadillos played out in the world of business. This is a good idea, particularly as his chain is attempting to drive hers out of business. Problem is, no one really had the heart to make Tom Hanks the yuppie S.O.B he really needed to be for this story to work (of course, the Hanks of the ’80s was born to play just this role – but now that he’s graduated to bland “nice guy” parts I suppose all nuance and complexity have gone out of his work). What the filmmakers do instead is truly laughable (and here comes a MAJOR spoiler, so if you don’t want to know how this film ends stop reading here): they have Hanks’ company run Ryan’s out of business – and then have her fall in love with him anyway. HUH?! Could someone explain that to me? The two don’t reach a détente, a middle ground, in their personal and business bickering. They don’t join forces, or find some compromise way to co-exist. I was at least expecting some diatribe against big business in favor of small and independent shopowners who truly “care” about their product. Corny though it might have been, it at least would have been consistent with the genre it found itself in. Or the movie might have been truly brave and suggested that, under the circumstances, there was no way Ryan could ever be with Hanks, as much as she loves him in cyberspace, for their fundamental difference in temperament and philosophy would always keep them apart. Then, maybe, Tom would have to undergo some kind of transformation or catharsis or. . . . but, hey, since he’s already such a nice guy in this movie, screw it, let’s just have him win heartlessly in business, and get the girl anyway. Under all the gossamer and syrup of the ending, it’s a pretty mean-spirited and cynical message this movie is pushing. Very distasteful, too. And not at all the experience I had in mind when laying down my eight bucks to see two of the most likable and charming leads working in movies today.
But Shop Around the Corner, that’s a whole other story. . .