Archive for July 1998

The Negotiator

July 29, 1998

There’s something a bit cheesy about a studio packaging a routine thriller with great actors; you find yourself compelled to catch a B-movie you wouldn’t bother with if it starred, say, Steven Seagal and Howie Long. The Negotiator, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey — two actors who couldn’t be boring if they were asleep for an entire film — goes a step further: it’s a B-movie you wouldn’t bother with if it starred, say, anyone else. Essentially, the movie is Jackson and Spacey. Take them away and you have an overlong, underplausible hostage drama that might have been done better, and shorter, on any number of TV shows.

Jackson is Danny Roman, a Chicago hostage negotiator framed for the murder of a fellow cop. Enraged and desperate, he storms into the Internal Affairs offices and takes a few hostages of his own — including the IA chief (J.T. Walsh) who might have been in on the frame-up. The first demand Danny makes, and gets, is Chris Sabian (Spacey), a cool-cucumber negotiator who takes quick and quiet control of the situation — despite the itchy trigger fingers of the feds and SWAT team. Danny’s ultimate demand, though, is that the police catch the real murderer.

As efficiently as a big Hollywood movie like this can be done — and director F. Gary Gray does a credible job — a vague feeling of inevitability and boredom may settle into your bones before you even sit down. If this were, say, an intense little art-house film with nobody you’ve ever heard of, the stakes would seem higher and the action more tense precisely because the actors aren’t well-known and can therefore die at any time. For the most part, though, the conclusion of a big-budget movie like The Negotiator is depressingly foregone. Aside from the identity of the killer (and even that’s no big whoop), the script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox has no surprises and no real depths for these great actors to explore.

To praise Jackson and Spacey would be redundant, since they’re good here in the same ways they’ve been great elsewhere (which is a problem in itself). Jackson, a master of blistering rhetoric, has his best scene early on when he’s quizzing an inept negotiator — though it steals not only from a similar hostage dialogue between a psycho kid and a sweaty principal in Stephen King’s novel Rage, but also from Jackson’s own “Say ‘What?’ one more goddamn time, I dare ya” bit in Pulp Fiction. Yet after a while his performance becomes a tad monotonous — for which I blame the script, which seldom gives him anything to play except “Must find the killer.”

Spacey, as always, manages to suggest flashes of private amusement beneath his toneless line readings. But he’s best when that tonelessness also hides dark secrets, and here he’s playing too much of a standard-issue good guy, the negotiator who’ll go out of his way to avoid bloodshed. Kevin Spacey should never be asked to play trustworthy characters. He delivers a perfectly plausible and professional performance, but the only time I really rose to his work was when Sabian first takes command and declares that the only valid orders will now come from him. There’s a quiet authority in his voice that the movie lacks.

One other reason I allowed myself to look forward to The Negotiator was that it was directed by F. Gary Gray, whose 1996 Set It Off was a sleeper hit for a reason: far from being a Waiting to Exhale Meets Thelma & Louise, as it was often advertised, it was a sharp and crackling examination of crime and the poverty-level lives that lead to it. So I left this movie a bit baffled; there doesn’t seem to have been any motivation for Gray to direct it except to prove he can do a big formula thriller. He can, but not that well; the movie wears out its welcome at about the 90-minute mark and still has almost another hour to go.

After some thought, I finally decided that Jackson and Spacey signed onto the project so they’d get to work with each other, and that Gray signed on so he’d get to work with them (who wouldn’t want to?). That’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is how this film, with the talent involved all around, turned out so blah. Or maybe it’s not such a mystery: A boring script filmed by a fine director and great actors is still a boring script.

Saving Private Ryan

July 24, 1998

Critics across America have fallen over themselves to bestow masterpiece status on Saving Private Ryan, the hefty new war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. I’ll agree with the raves about the battle sequences, which have a cruel, piercing horror, but otherwise the critics sound like a pack of easily impressed 12-year-old boys. A masterpiece? Hardly. Neither as subtly artful as Schindler’s List nor as boringly high-minded as Amistad, this film falls somewhere in the bland middle. It’s forty minutes of steely violence and two hours of cliché-ridden flab — and Spielberg’s draining the color out of the clichés doesn’t make them any less clichés.

The film begins not with carnage but with grief: an elderly man visiting the Normandy memorial, wandering through the rows of white crosses. The image recalls Scarlett O’Hara walking through the dead and dying in Gone with the Wind — just one of many bits Spielberg cribs from other war films. The old man gets one of those sad-thinking-back faces, and we cut to D-Day on Omaha Beach. Men are dying everywhere you look; they die before they even get off the boats, they die underwater when bullets cut through the murk and kick up a cloud of red. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski stage the combat in a jittery, haphazard style that conveys the systematic nightmare of war.

It’s a bit of a distancing style, though — too self-consciously a newsreel effect — and you can’t help being excited even as you’re appalled. Spielberg pays a price for starting things off with a bang: after a certain amount of graphic violence (and this movie is the hardest R I’ve ever seen), you just go numb. And Spielberg can’t help aestheticizing it; even the harsh physical realism becomes almost pleasurable to watch. The staccato noise of bullets thudding into flesh, the shock of sudden death — it all has a feral beauty. (The gray-toned photography further distances us. Was Spielberg afraid to go all the way and shoot in black and white — an uncommercial format — or did he want to avoid comparisons to Schindler’s List?)

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called Spielberg “our most spectacular poet of war,” which is not a label anyone applied to Kubrick or Oliver Stone or Coppola — or even Edward Zwick, whose Glory and Courage Under Fire captured the moral complexity of war far more effectively than anything in Saving Private Ryan. And has anyone noticed how Spielberg the spectacular poet of war hedges his bets? He doesn’t start with any old battle — he kicks things off with D-Day. If he hadn’t gotten our attention with such a large-scale canvas of chaos, would we not feel that war is hell? In Glory, we got the point without seeing dozens of men get their brains blown out. One head blown off was quite enough to make the case.

At the center of Saving Private Ryan is a rather routine drama. Four brothers are stationed overseas during World War II; three of them have been killed, and the fourth, James Ryan (Matt Damon), is still out there somewhere. The top brass sends a platoon, headed by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), to find Ryan and bring him back alive so he can go home to his thrice-bereaved mother. So Miller and his squad of stereotypes — the faithful sergeant (Tom Sizemore), the cynical Brooklyn guy (Edward Burns), the surly Italian (Vin Diesel), the sensitive medic (Giovanni Ribisi), the skittish new guy (Jeremy Davies), the mordant Jew (Adam Goldberg), the devout Christian (Barry Pepper) — venture into Spielberg’s version of war-torn hell, which is really an anthology of moments from war movies and books: the sniper, the German prisoner, the little heart-tugging kid, and so on.

“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire” — that was the defining line in Schindler’s List, and it could be the epigram for Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat hang their epic on a shaky metaphor. Private Ryan, of course, is us — the abstract American ideal that our soldiers died to defend. “Earn this,” Miller says to Ryan — meaning, Earn the life we’ve died to protect. Yet Spielberg ignores the fact that it was the government, not Ryan — not us — who sent those soldiers to die. The last scene, a schmaltzy reprise of the opening scene, is meant to send us out wanting to be worthy of America’s great sacrifice. And it’s meant to make you feel small for asking why anyone must die or kill in any war.

Saving Private Ryan says nothing fresh about war; it lacks the sardonic vision of Kubrick’s great war films (Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, the latter of which Spielberg swipes from constantly), which regarded war with a hollow laugh, as the sickest of sick jokes. The closest Spielberg comes to Kubrick is in a couple of scenes with the terrified interpreter played by Jeremy Davies, and in a perfectly realized death scene claiming a soldier we’ve come to like. Elsewhere, Spielberg loses focus, and he underdirects his actors. Some, like Edward Burns and Adam Goldberg, come through anyway; others, like Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore, show little personality — it’s as if they had no time to bring anything of themselves to the show. That’s true of Spielberg too. He has a fierce visual precision in those combat scenes. Everywhere else, where it really counts, he shoots all over the place.

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FOOTNOTE: For some reason, I have received some of the most savage feedback for this review (well, this and American History X). Here are some of the comments left by, I assume, good God-fearin’ patriots under my review at efilmcritic.com: “Rob Gonsalves. You complete douche. Jump off a cliff. Pussy.” “Gonsalves needs to grow a penis. The movie was amazing.” “Mr Gonsalves is a stupid fucktard, this movie is beautiful.” I guess it’s not enough for the movie’s fans that it has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (where I also got awesome comments like “You’re flab” and “This reviewer is a moron. A movie for true Americans!”); no, everyone must fall into lockstep adoration so that the movie gets 100%. I talk more about this phenomenon here.

There’s Something About Mary

July 15, 1998

fhd998SAM_Cameron_Diaz_002There’s Something About Mary is crude, vulgar, reprehensible, and probably a threat to the American way of life — in a word, hilarious. Directed by Rhode Island brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, the disreputable auteurs who made Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, the movie pours two unstable elements into the same flask: romantic comedy and gross-out humor. The Farrellys’ next genre should be the tearjerker — I’d love to see what they’d do with The Horse Whisperer. (Think of the poignant drama as Kristin Scott Thomas in her high heels slips on cow flop…)

Cameron Diaz is Mary, the Farrellys’ (and many other guys’) ideal woman: a looker who’s compassionate, down to earth, and looking for “a paunchy guy who likes golf and beer.” She hasn’t had much luck holding onto a guy, though, and in the film’s 1985 opening sequence we learn why: Her brother Warren (W. Earl Brown) is retarded¹ and tends to scare people away. For Mary, this is just as well: If a guy can’t deal with Warren, she doesn’t want to deal with the guy.

One guy who gets along with Mary and Warren is Ted (Ben Stiller), a pimply dweeb with braces in 1985. Touched by Ted’s well-meaning (if ineffectual) defense of Warren against a bully, Mary asks him to the prom — which leads to an escalating series of mishaps, some of which haven’t been revealed in the trailer, so I won’t spoil them. Cut to 1998: Ted, now a freelance writer, is still haunted by the memory of Mary (and the events of the aborted prom night). He won’t be able to get over her until he finds out what she’s doing now, so he hires sleazo private eye Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to track her down in Miami. Pat, who is paunchy and likes beer, takes one look at Mary and decides to take up golf.

The movie is shrewdly cast. If Ben Stiller hadn’t proved in Flirting with Disaster that he’s willing to look like a hapless dork, he certainly proves it here. Hardly a scene goes by that he’s not beaten, humiliated, and generally degraded — he’s a great sport, like Woody Harrelson in the better scenes in Kingpin (a much less successful Farrelly effort). Matt Dillon demolishes what’s left of his teen-idol image from the ’80’s; he spends half the movie in ugly fake choppers. His performance is even funnier if you caught Wild Things, where he played another kind of sap in the middle of a Miami triangle. Diaz, as always, is a fresh and stabilizing presence; her beauty is an effective counterpoint to all the grossness.

But if There’s Something About Mary is a hit — and it deserves to be — W. Earl Brown may become an unlikely star. Brown has been around the margins of other movies, most memorably as Kenny, Courteney Cox’s doomed cameraman in Scream, but here, convincingly playing the cheerful (and sometimes violent) Warren, he breaks out and steals the movie. One Warren scene near the beginning — it involves Ted and a baseball — made me laugh so hard I got lightheaded. Brown makes you laugh with Warren, not at him, and the humor in his character comes from how others react to him (and what he does to them). It’s not long before he wins the audience over completely; he’s the best movie hero of the summer.

A movie like this is difficult to review, because you have to suggest how funny it is without actually explaining why (and thus spoiling the jokes). There’s a vicious little dog, as you’ve seen in the ads, but the Farrellys wisely don’t overwork him — and the jokes always go a step or two further than what you saw in the trailer. There’s a certain heartlessness in the Farrellys’ approach to gross-out humor, but this time there’s some heart, too. When Mary is shown working with retarded people like her brother, the scene is more natural and compassionate than you’d expect from a movie like this. In fact, in this comedy, it’s mostly the “normal” people who are ugly, stupid, and laughable. Very laughable.

The Farrellys stir up the two genres in the flask, and the result is its own genre: the gross-out romance. They already did the gross-out road movie and the gross-out sports movie; Mel Brooks has done the gross-out Western (Blazing Saddles) and Peter Jackson has done the gross-out horror movie (Dead Alive), so I suggest the Farrellys turn their comedic focus to the gross-out blockbuster. For example, wouldn’t Armageddon have been better if one of the heroes had farted in his space suit just once? Or if Godzilla had the runs? Or if Mulder had leaned in to kiss Scully, only to see a big, whistling booger hanging from her nose?

¹We would say “mentally challenged” now, but I apologetically leave the 1998 language as is, as reflective of the time.

Small Soldiers

July 10, 1998

Small Soldiers is a combination of Toy Story and Gremlins, two movies I dislike intensely, so perhaps it makes a strange kind of sense that I liked Small Soldiers a lot. The movie’s subtext isn’t as self-pitying as Toy Story‘s was (that movie was about Disney’s insecurity in the face of fickle kids who discarded Disney’s Woody in favor of the competition’s Buzz Lightyear), and it doesn’t have the distasteful split-personality tone of Gremlins, which began cute and then soured into ugly mayhem. No, this movie begins cynical and sleek and stays that way — and the subtext here is that militarism disguised as kids’ entertainment can backfire, or open fire on you.

At the beginning, an electronic-toy executive (Denis Leary, perfectly cast) is impatient with toys that teach children. Where’s the fun in that? He wants toys that kick ass. Soon enough, the kick-ass toys are rolling off the belt: the jug-eared, hardcore Commando Elite — think G.I. Joe on steroids — and their enemies, the mutant Gorgonites. These action figures are so advanced they can walk, talk, and act on their own. And when they all arrive at a forlorn toy shop, the Commandos wage war on the Gorgonites. Why? Because that’s what they’re programmed to do. Never mind that the Gorgonites don’t seem as if they could swat a fly — indeed, they’re so pacifist their best defense is to hide.

The subversive meanings of Small Soldiers are deep enough to wade through — it’s no accident that the unsympathetic, violent, threatening Commandos are gung-ho American patriots. And the script (by Ted Elliott, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Terry Rossio, and Gavin Scott) is hip to the notion that war-game toys (and, by extension, shootout video games) are uncomfortably close to the desensitizing process used by the military to teach soldiers to kill. Director Joe Dante, whose work of late has flirted with politics (he did the satire The Second Civil War for HBO last year), uses the toys to bravura effect. The Commandos move in jerky, phallic rhythms — they’re like little plastic Buck Turgidsons — while the Gorgonites, whether becalmed or manic, glide smoothly in a way that makes them seem more human than the humanoid Commandos. (Stan Winston, who created the toys, should be remembered at Oscar time.)

In outline, Small Soldiers is much like Gremlins. In both, a young dreamer (Gregory Smith here) has a crush on a beautiful girl he can’t have (Kirsten Dunst, on her way to becoming a heartbreaker); the intrusion of small, toylike friends and antagonists brings the young lovers together, as if to tell them to put away childish things and come of age. Luckily, Kirsten Dunst is far more talented and appealing than Phoebe Cates ever was, and she doesn’t get stuck with a grotesque backstory about a dead dad stuck in a chimney. Instead, she gets a great, visually resonant scene involving dozens of re-animated “Gwendies” (Barbies) recruited and modified by the Commandos. The bald, deformed Gwendies may remind some viewers of Sid’s tortured toys in Toy Story, yet they have a weird comic terror all their own — the strangeness of doll-like beauty violated. When the Gwendies join the Commandos on the front lawn for moonlit combat, it’s like a suburban playpen version of Night of the Living Dead.

Small Soldiers will be criticized for the wrong reasons — i.e., it’s either too much like or not enough like Toy Story; it’s not really for kids; its real heroes are the mostly passive Gorgonites. But this is still a smarter and hipper entertainment than Disney’s overhyped Pixar-fest. For one thing, there are no dippy songs — just kick-ass covers of “War” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” among others. And the action is set in the real world, unlike Toy Story, which unfolded entirely inside a computer-created universe and made me feel terribly claustrophobic and itchy (I needed some fresh air after five minutes). Like Spielberg, Dante proves that a real director can use CGI seamlessly — to heighten reality and fantasy, not to provide a CGI demo reel.

Dante fans will appreciate Robert Picardo and the great Dick Miller in their obligatory cameos; Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson make quirkier-than-usual parents (Dante seems to like dads who never grew up, who invent things or run toy shops); and Phil Hartman, once you get over the initial twinge of sadness, is in fine smarmy form as an obnoxious technophile neighbor. Best of all, for adults, is the movie’s range of guest voices — from Tommy Lee Jones leading the Commandos (made up of a few of the surviving Dirty Dozen) to Frank Langella presiding over the Gorgonites (voiced by all three Spinal Tap members) to the sly vocal bits by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci as the Gwendies. This may just be the first DreamWorks production you can recommend with a straight face — though Joe Dante never directs with a straight face, and that’s what sets Small Soldiers above its bigger competition this season.

Lethal Weapon 4

July 10, 1998

lethal-weapon-4“We are not getting too old for this shit!” chant Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 4, echoing Glover’s oft-repeated catchphrase. Uh, yes you are, guys. The very definition of a meaningless, mindless summer sequel, LW4 is fairly painless for about its first hour. After that, you may have to remind yourself what the plot is supposed to be about. And then you may have to remind yourself why you bothered to remind yourself. This is easily the most sketchily written of the Lethal Weapon movies, obviously improvised on the set whenever possible (a ploy that fizzles more often than not).

There was really no reason to make a fourth entry in this once-honorable action series — there was barely a reason to make the third one, either (except that it introduced Rene Russo, a welcome dose of estrogen in this testosterone-drunk series). For me, the perpetually near-retired Roger Murtaugh (Glover) and psycho Vietnam vet Martin Riggs (Gibson) hit their stride, and their peak, in 1989’s satisfyingly whiplash LW2. Since then, Murtaugh and Riggs have coasted on our affection for them; Riggs isn’t even crazy any more — in LW4 he’s so mellow he seems ready to host a landscape-painting show on PBS.

Director Richard Donner (who has helmed all four Lethal Weapons) is coasting, too. He stages one good wacky car chase on an L.A. freeway, and it’s stupidly enjoyable while you’re watching it. But afterwards you may recall the movies it cribs from — Raiders of the Lost Ark, a similar chase in LW2 — and you also may feel bone-tired of car chases. And there’s never any real threat or danger in the action scenes. By now, Riggs and Murtaugh are so well-loved that you know Donner isn’t going to kill off either of them.

The Lethal Weapon movies have always thrown in some hapless attempt at social relevance amid all the cartoonish brutality — we had South African villains in LW2, a gun-runner providing weapons to South Central kids in LW3, and in LW4 we have a Chinese Mr. Big (Jet Li, the latest Hong Kong star to dip his toe into Hollywood waters) who smuggles Asian immigrants into Los Angeles only to enslave them and force them to work in his counterfeit-cash operation. One step forward, two steps back: Just as Mulan comes out and Asian-Americans thought it was safe to go to the movies, along comes LW4to revive the old Yellow Peril. Jet Li is impressive here, but his moves left me wanting to see him in his undiluted Hong Kong glory, not in weak Hollywood stuff like this.

Russo returns as Riggs’ detective sweetheart Lorna, who is now pregnant and therefore excused from most of the boy-boy action. (She does pack a mean kick despite being nearly nine months along — any women out there care to comment on the physical verisimilitude of this?) Joe Pesci also returns as the motormouth Leo Getz, now an inept private eye who seems to exist only to expound nasally on a variety of irrelevant topics. Series newcomer Chris Rock, as a hot-headed younger detective, joins Pesci in a rather amusing dual rant about cell phones, but both men wear out their welcome fast. They both start at a high pitch and never let up — they’re like duelling car alarms. Meanwhile, Glover and especially Gibson sit back in most of their improvised scenes and goof off; some of the goofing off is funny, but most of it is just two overfamiliar partners trying and failing to wing it without a script.

Somewhere around the second hour, I lost interest. A minor character we’ve gotten to know and care about is killed, and it has no weight, no impact on his family or on the cop who has befriended him. I trust I will reveal nothing shocking by noting that the bad guy gets it in the end — does he ever not, in the LW series? — but Donner, having impaled him during a thunderstorm, misses his chance to send the villain off in grand fashion with a well-aimed bolt of lightning. He misses a lot of chances; he prefers to kick back and relax. But what’s the point of a relaxed Joel Silver action blockbuster? At Lethal Weapon 4, you’re either glad to be with these guys again, or you wish Warner Brothers would come up with a good story for them — or simply retire them. The schmaltzy final scenes, which surface from the depths of a pious family-values hell, would indicate that this sequel is meant to be our goodbye to Murtaugh and Riggs. If only it weren’t such a long goodbye.

Armageddon

July 1, 1998

A typically relentless, attention-deficit-disorder spectacle from Michael Bay. An asteroid the size of Texas threatens Earth. Oil driller Bruce Willis and his trusty team of misfits (including Steve Buscemi, Ben Affleck, and Will Patton) are sent up to land on the rock, drill a hole, drop a nuke into it, and blow it up from within. The movie is a trashy combo of The Dirty Dozen and The Right Stuff — I would say “cheerfully trashy,” but there’s nothing especially cheerful about Bay’s hyperactive, insecure style that treats the audience like morons, and the script makes almost no sense despite the work of many uncredited hands (including Paul Attanasio, Scott Rosenberg, Ann Biderman, Robert Towne, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, and Robert Roy Pool). Still, it was Touchstone’s biggest hit to date, outearning Touchstone’s previous record-holder Pretty Woman. Score by Trevor Rabin; cinematography by John Schwartzman. Aerosmith’s awful ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was actually nominated for an Oscar. Also with Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Owen Wilson, William Fichtner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, Bodhi Elfman, and Shawnee Smith; Lawrence Tierney had a part as Willis’ dad but got left on the cutting-room floor (lucky him). Charlton Heston provides the opening narration, getting the movie off to a properly ostentatious start. Look for Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) as a NASA techie.


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