Archive for August 1999

The Astronaut’s Wife

August 27, 1999

Okay, if we concede there are aliens out there (and we might as well), we’re still left with the question, What do they want from us? “Die,” answered the E.T. with admirable straightforwardness in Independence Day. But the intergalactic travellers in the somber and preposterous The Astronaut’s Wife have more sinister things in mind: They want to KNOCK UP OUR WOMEN! Yes, the Weekly World News has been right all along. Lock up your daughters, and don’t let any of them marry an astronaut.

Johnny Depp, in a rare check-cashing performance (you’d have to go back to 1995’s Nick of Time to find him this boring), is hotshot astronaut Spencer Armacost, who along with a partner (Nick Cassavetes) is repairing the exterior panels of a shuttle out in space when something strange happens. NASA loses contact with the men for two minutes, and when they come back down to Earth they won’t, or can’t, talk about what happened. Spencer’s wife Jillian (Charlize Theron) is happy to have Spencer home safe; her relief blinds her, at first, to the ways in which her husband has changed. Once proud to be a high-flyer, Spencer retires from service and accepts an offer at some corporation working on a special plane for use in high-tech warfare. The new job is in New York, which Spencer always used to hate. It’s not long before we begin to suspect that Spencer isn’t Spencer any more, though it takes Jillian a lot longer to figure it out.

Making his feature debut, writer-director Rand Ravich goes about his grim business as if assembling a particularly moody car commercial. The result, thanks to the great cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.), is easy on the eyes, but the filmmaking is of the hey-look-Ma-I’m-a-director school, with many, many circling overhead shots, and without the playfulness and vigor that an inspired show-off like Brian De Palma could bring to it. The Astronaut’s Wife isn’t any fun, and it drags along while we watch Jillian sink deeper and deeper into her predicament. For instance, Jillian discovers she’s pregnant, and an ultrasound determines that she’s carrying twins — which means something ominous, I think, but I’ve already forgotten what. The situation, not to mention Charlize Theron’s unflattering pixie haircut, explicitly recalls Roman Polanski’s paranoid masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby, but that film had an infinitely more colorful cast of characters and an undercurrent of diabolical wit. This movie has nothing except a vague biological dread: What exactly is Jillian carrying inside her? And why does Spencer, or whatever he is, seem so intent on the babies’ well-being?

The movie wastes an interesting cast of likable character actors: Blair Brown and Tom Noonan as Spencer’s new benefactors, Joe Morton as a NASA man desperate to tell Jillian the truth, Clea DuVall as Jillian’s sister, Donna Murphy as a woman stricken with grief over the fate of her husband. But generally, this is the sort of coldhearted movie that sets up a vulnerable heroine and then picks off everyone around her who can help her; don’t bother getting too attached to most of the characters.

Theron acts up a storm; it’s basically her movie, and she’s appealing in a fragile way, but the mechanics of the plot end up making her look like a sap. As for Depp, there were times when I thought I was watching Val Kilmer, and most of the time you could be watching just about anyone else in the role. A mild Southern drawl is about all Depp brings to the party, and Ravich uses him like a masked heavy in a slasher film. Jillian turns around — gasp! — he’s there. Jillian sneaks out to meet someone who can help her — eek! — he’s there again. He’s so consistently everywhere that I expected to learn that the aliens had cloned him, but no, he just has that horror-movie knack of being wherever he needs to be, whenever he needs to be there.

The Astronaut’s Wife builds sputteringly to a climax involving running water, a radio, and an alien that looks like the aquatic E.T.s in The Abyss crossed with an octopus. It also boasts what I call the wrong kind of bleak ending. I have nothing against unhappy endings, but they have to be prepared for, and we have to be prepared for them, even in subtle ways we don’t recognize until after the movie is over (see The Sixth Sense). But the ending of The Astronaut’s Wife leaves you with nothing; all of Jillian’s agony and terror amount to nothing, and all of our suffering while watching her suffering means nothing. (If this is why they needed reshoots, I’d hate to see the original ending.) The movie is a high-toned grind, and if you manage to develop any emotional connection to the heroine, it isn’t repaid — it’s thrown back in your face. The Astronaut’s Wife isn’t so much chilling as pointlessly unpleasant and mean-spirited.

The Muse

August 27, 1999

Lately, Albert Brooks has been concerned about the growing trend in gross-out comedies. He’s talked about doing a parody of them, which he’d like to call The Big Stupid Dumb Movie. While we wait for that project, though, we may have to settle for Brooks’ usual stock in trade — small smart witty movies. The Muse is one such movie, and though it doesn’t scale the comic heights of his 1985 classic Lost in America (few movies could), it’s still wiser and funnier than almost everything else out there.

As always, Brooks plays the neurotic, well-to-do schlub, this time under the name Steven Phillips, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who’s just won a Humanitarian award. For what? Well, for being a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who presumably hasn’t been caught doing anything stupid in public; also as a consolation prize for never winning an Oscar. As if to reverse his fortunes, Steven is told by a fresh-faced studio executive that he’s “lost his edge.” (That’s Hollywood talk for “You’re past 50 and you don’t understand how to write movies for teenagers any more.”) He’s relieved of his studio office, and he goes into writer’s block.

Nothing short of magic can restore Steven’s career, and fortunately a fellow screenwriter (a laid-back Jeff Bridges) tips him off to a good source: Sarah Little (Sharon Stone), a mysterious and flighty woman who acts as a muse to the creative powers in Hollywood. Gleefully tacky and loaded with baubles from grateful clients, Sarah might have stepped out of a Francesca Lia Block young-adult novel about the taffy-colored goddesses of L.A., where shallowness has its own magic. (Steve Martin also worked this side of the street in L.A. Story: “I was really unhappy, but I didn’t notice because I was so happy all the time.”) Sarah agrees to take Steven on as a client if he’ll place himself at her constant service. Meanwhile, Sarah takes a liking to Steven’s wife Laura (Andie MacDowell, atypically charming here), encouraging her to open her own cookie business.

If you choose not to take The Muse (or Sarah) literally, it’s a fable about the fickleness of creativity. For, of course, no writer can consciously sit there and think of good ideas, which is why most writers can’t answer the time-honored question “Where do you get your ideas?” They just arrive, amidst a lot of time-wasting (and a lot of bad ideas, too). Sarah, played by Stone with a cheerful material-girl twinkle that’s like the funhouse-mirror version of her Casino gold-digger, doesn’t really do anything for Steven except get him to spend money. It’s during incidental moments, when she drags him to an aquarium, that inspiration strikes. The fact that Steven’s idea for a script sounds like The Big Stupid Dumb Movie only adds to Brooks’ gentle satire of Hollywood, in which bad ideas become great ideas if a star is attached.

The true source of inspiration in The Muse, though, isn’t Sarah but Brooks himself, as an actor as well as writer-director. Lines that might be mildly funny on paper — “I’m not six. I want a meal” in response to Laura’s invitation to have a cookie — become small classics with Brooks’ exhausted, slightly whiny delivery. The Muse is also fun for movie buffs, who will appreciate the cameos by a strangely docile James Cameron and a mega-caffeinated Martin Scorsese (who really should act more often). And there’s a spectacularly surreal conversation at a restaurant party, between Steven and a guy with a shaky command of English who tries to figure out what Steven does for a living. A writer? Oh, you mean you do the writing on cakes? And essentially, the guy isn’t far off; a Hollywood writer does the writing on big stupid dumb cakes, and if he writes on enough successful cakes, he gets a Humanitarian award.

Teaching Mrs. Tingle

August 20, 1999

It comes advertised as “the wicked new film from Kevin Williamson” (who makes his directing debut with an old script he wrote at UCLA), but the one thing Teaching Mrs. Tingle isn’t, right down to its softened title, is wicked. It’s a prolonged tease — a Hitchcocktease — always flirting with outrageousness, always pulling back at the last minute. Tingle is a bland combo of the slasher-movie Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and the wannabe-John Hughes, TV-producer Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek). In short, every time our young “heroes” visit some indignity upon their teacher nemesis, we’re sure to get a scene reiterating that these are basically good kids driven to this behavior, just as we also get a scene giving the teacher one more layer of monstrosity. Yet we can’t even enjoy the kids’ transgressions, because the transgressions are so lame you understand why the teacher just shrugs them off. They’re not in her league.

Katie Holmes, she of the serious moon face, is hardworking high-school senior Leigh Ann, who is one point away from becoming valedictorian and nabbing the scholarship she needs for college. To do this, she needs an A from her history teacher, Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), who does not bestow high grades lightly, if at all. Mrs. Tingle is the sort of coldly sportive teacher you meet only in movies (I never had one like her, or maybe I was lucky) — a bitch who relishes grinding her students into the dirt with sarcasm, criticism, and bleak predictions for their future. One afternoon, while Leigh Ann is laying out graduation seating with her best friend Jo Lynn (Marisa Coughlan), their lackadaisical classmate Luke (Barry Watson) drops by and hands Leigh Ann her salvation: a copy of Mrs. Tingle’s final exam. Leigh Ann decides not to cheat, but Luke slips the exam into her bag anyway; then, of course, Mrs. Tingle finds it there and cheerfully busts Leigh Ann. Kiss valedictorian goodbye; now she might not even graduate.

Whatever will poor little Leigh Ann do? Her mom (the uncredited Lesley Ann Warren), an exhausted waitress, wants Leigh Ann to escape their small town and make something of herself — go off to college and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. (A profession wherein Leigh Ann will probably end up making half of what her mom makes, unless she goes to Hollywood and becomes the next Kevin Williamson.) So this isn’t just for Leigh Ann — it’s also for her loving, self-sacrificing mom, who works her fingers to the bone for her daughter while the childless, apparently well-off Mrs. Tingle lords it over everyone in the school. A message about class conflict seems to be rattling around in there somewhere, unacknowledged and undeveloped. The snobbish Mrs. Tingle tweaks her students with digs like “Hope you make a good waitress” or “A name tag will look so good on you,” yet Williamson seems to agree with her that public-service jobs are last-resort drudge work that the kids should flee from. We’re to be horrified at the prospect of sensitive, smart Leigh Ann missing out on college and inheriting her mom’s dreaded name tag. Williamson may have made the mom sympathetic to avoid the charge of classism, but I think he should be charged anyway.

To get back to the main “plot,” Leigh Ann and her friends go to the home of Mrs. Tingle (a cheese-Gothic house well outside the salary of any real high-school teacher) and try to reason with her. But Mrs. Tingle won’t be reasoned with; she’s unreachable. Helen Mirren delivers some of her lines with animalistic fervor, and from time to time she lets her inherent sexiness sneak through, but the script she’s been handed is sheet music with only one note. Mrs. Tingle winds up tied to her bedposts, and as the movie went on I began to see this as a good visual metaphor for what’s done to Mirren as an actress here. Mrs. Tingle taunts her young captors, telling stories that may or may not be true, and whenever we think we’re seeing a vulnerable side of her, it turns out to be a ruse. Mrs. Tingle is like a wildcat caught in a bear trap; she snarls and gnashes. And though Mirren can snarl and gnash with the best of them, there’s no subtext to Mrs. Tingle’s vicious jealousy of her students; there’s barely even any text.

I realize that using a word like “subtext” in a review of a crappy teen movie sounds faintly ridiculous. But the movie certainly didn’t need to aim so low (it misses anyway). Most of the tension develops from the kids’ growing mistrust of each other as Mrs. Tingle manipulates them, but it’s no fun watching a cartoon Mrs. Lecter toying with airhead Clarice Starlings. Only once do the kids find the brains to manipulate the teacher right back, and it’s the only funny sequence in the movie — but then, the sequence involves the great Jeffrey Tambor, who could be funny reading from Sylvia Plath. Williamson casts Tambor spot-on as a sweetly libidinous coach whose eager anticipation of a spanking good time with Mrs. Tingle is a mini-masterpiece of high foolishness. Elsewhere, Williamson goes for stunt casting that leads nowhere — Michael McKean as the easily intimidated principal, Vivica A. Fox as a guidance counselor, Molly Ringwald (yes, her) as an office secretary — because they’re given nothing to do. (Ringwald, subbing for Mrs. Tingle in class at one point, launches into a foulmouthed lecture on Napoleon that comes out of the blue.)

It’s also worth pointing out that the movie, which until a few months ago was titled Killing Mrs. Tingle, is quite secondhand: There was a young-adult book published in 1978 called Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan, who also wrote the book I Know What You Did Last Summer — which Williamson adapted. Coincidence? The movie is not line-for-line plagiarism, though both Mrs. Tingle and Mr. Griffin are frigid perfectionists who, in their first big scene, take pleasure in humiliating students in front of the class. Duncan’s book is at least more grim: the group of students consciously set out to scare Mr. Griffin into begging for his life; he expires rather unceremoniously somewhere near the middle of the book, and the rest of the story is basically a rehash of the guilt and paranoia of Last Summer. Duncan also humanized Mr. Griffin before he died, something Williamson doesn’t bother to do for Mrs. Tingle at any point. Whether or not Miramax changed the title because of Columbine (or perhaps to avoid legal action from Duncan, who was none too happy with Williamson’s version of Last Summer), the movie as it stands now is more accurately named, because nothing is killed except 96 minutes of our lives.

A movie as formless and timid as Teaching Mrs. Tingle leaves you wondering whom it was made for and what Kevin Williamson had in mind. Except for the bit with Tambor, the movie isn’t funny, and it’s certainly never tense or scary. It’s nowhere near “wicked,” either, because the kids never cross the line, never pass the point of no return. It’s a dark comedy without the darkness. It’s also not particularly well-directed (Williamson should save his auteur aspirations for his TV shows); most of the action unfolds inside Mrs. Tingle’s dreary bedroom, and when the scene shifts outside, it’s still dreary. The film drizzles when it should thunder, and it ends on a note of sunshine. This, I guess, is what’s going to have to pass for “wicked” until Hollywood gets over Columbine. It’s been rumored that the softening of Tingle didn’t end with the title change, that it got tamed a bit prior to release, and having seen it, I can attest that it’s tame, all right. But here you have a movie in which three teenagers go to a teacher’s house and take her hostage. Either you go all the way with that premise, or you don’t go there at all.

Detroit Rock City

August 13, 1999

Is Detroit Rock City only for KISS fans? It probably helps to be a card-carrying member of the KISS Army, but even if you’re a disco-loving Stella, the movie’s theme is universal: Four teenage guys on a quest to see the world’s greatest rock group in concert, with apparently everyone between Cleveland and Detroit standing in their way. The movie isn’t a trailblazer; it’s an exuberantly trashy party, a comedy of lowdown defeats and triumphs. It won’t be the influential, well-loved ’70s sketchbook movie that Dazed and Confused was; it’s more of a throwaway pop artifact, though it still pays tribute to the essential single-mindedness of teenagers. The kids in Dazed and Confused wanted to get stoned. The kids in American Pie wanted to get laid. The kids in Detroit Rock City want to see KISS in concert. Everything else is incidental.

Our four heroes, Hawk (Edward Furlong), Trip (James De Bello), Jam (Sam Huntington), and Lex (Giuseppe Andrews), are Cleveland high-schoolers who have their own (pretty awful) KISS tribute band. KISS, as it happens, is coming to Detroit on their ’78 tour, and the guys have tickets — but not for long, after Jam’s devoutly Catholic mom (Lin Shaye, well on her way to becoming the movies’ resident gargoyle woman) torches them. The boys spend the rest of the movie trying and failing to get tickets; it’s as if they couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror unless they see this particular concert at this precise moment in their lives. Indeed, with disco gaining a stranglehold on American pop music, it’s as if the boys’ failure might also spell KISS’s own doom. (In the end, as we know, KISS had the last laugh; the evidence is this movie.)

Detroit Rock City kicks off with a splatter of ’70s imagery under the opening credits, placing KISS in their proper context as a blockbuster band that could only really have happened in the odd transitional phase between Nixon and Reagan. To these ears, KISS’s music is loud and amped-up cheeseball music at its apex (which, I hasten to add, is not necessarily a bad thing); it wouldn’t have gone far, though, without the stage pyrotechnics. KISS redesigned gaudy showmanship for suburban white kids. They learned from their glam-rock forefathers, adding the very American elements of blood and thunder, sex and horror. Someone who’s never seen KISS in action may listen to the music by itself and consider it vigorously-played metal without much personality; KISS’s flamboyant stage act carries on the time-honored show-biz equation of personality as pure style. This is why even KISS fans look back on the band’s brief no-makeup phase in the mid-’80s as a regrettable blip: Without the showmanship, KISS were too much like 27 other hair-metal bands of the period — they’d lost their mojo. (It was really another form of showmanship — “See KISS’s real faces!” — which didn’t work.)

What’s best about Detroit Rock City is that the director, Adam Rifkin, understands that style is personality and directs accordingly. The movie is fast and cartoonish, with enough whiplash zooms and other trickery to let you know nobody is taking this very seriously. At times it’s like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School remade by Robert Rodriguez. When Hawk gets drunk at a strip joint, he pukes so much he fills an entire beer pitcher. When a hulking bully punches Trip (James De Bello, incidentally, gives the movie’s stand-out performance as a very Jay-like stoner), he goes flying backward a few feet and bounces off a wall. When Jam loses his virginity to a shy girl who has a crush on him (Melanie Lynskey, who’s grown into a lovely young woman since Heavenly Creatures), the amorous moment unfolds inside a confessional booth. The poster art for Detroit Rock City looks like a Mad magazine illustration (the drawing style is a tribute to Mort Drucker, Mad‘s best caricaturist), and the movie itself is like a Mad magazine parody of itself. The comic-bookiness of the style, its unapologetic lowbrow raunchiness, probably wouldn’t have worked with any other rock band as its inspiration.

At the concert, the guys split up to find or scam tickets, and each of them has embarrassments and victories. Though there’s plenty of crude, rude behavior (sample dialogue: “I never heard a chick blow ass before”), this is essentially a decent-hearted movie; screenwriter Carl V. Dupré makes sure that the guys don’t go too far in their pursuit of KISS, as when Trip has an Animal House-like crisis of conscience in a convenience store, with the floating heads of his three buddies nagging him to do the right thing. Along the way, there are plenty of period details for the attentive, mostly having to do with ’70s junk culture (Hustler, the Farrah poster, comic books, etc.). And the movie doesn’t strong-arm you; it moves at a genial pace and never pretends to be more important than it is. Even the climactic moment, when we finally get to see KISS, is more about the audience excitement than about KISS.

Considering that Gene Simmons was one of the producers, Detroit Rock City could have been a bloodless valentine to KISS fans. But Simmons, a shrewd man, knows his audience has no use for valentines. So the movie he co-produced is just about four schlubby kids from Anywhere, USA, raising hell and getting laid. That’s the meaning of all rock; KISS made it larger than life, but Detroit Rock City scales it back down to human size.

True Crime

August 10, 1999

snapshotltIs Clint Eastwood about ready to retire? His Oscar-winning Unforgiven was, to these eyes, a pristine work of art and entertainment; but that was also seven years ago, and since then, also to these eyes, he has been sliding and coasting. The overlong and finally mawkish A Perfect World, the decent but unnecessary Bridges of Madison County, the mundane Absolute Power, the too-leisurely Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil …. These are films for grown-ups, with a contemplative pace to match, and regardless of their flaws, they are honorable and rock-solid pieces of craftsmanship — hardly an inelegant moment in them. What they aren’t is exciting. Bidding farewell to his sixties, Eastwood has become an almost stubbornly tame director, as if atoning for the bad taste of his box-office reign as Dirty Harry.

Eastwood’s new one as director-star, True Crime, isn’t nearly as phlegmatic as his last couple of efforts. Taking his cameras into the offices of a fictional Oakland newspaper, Clint gets a little buzz going, especially when he puts James Woods (the editor in chief) and Denis Leary (news editor) in the same room. When Clint, as chewed-up warhorse reporter Steve Everett, joins them in the room, we forget whatever the movie’s supposed to be about. Woods is at his withering best; Leary, perhaps feeling outgunned, reins himself in and plays his editor as borderline mild-mannered — the novelty of that is almost as much fun to watch as Leary’s usual ranting. I’ll always remember Clint inviting Denis Leary to punch him in the face — it’s one of those nice moments for fans of both actors — but I’ve already forgotten most of the material that’s supposed to be the plot’s main motor.

And what’s that? Oh, the usual beat-the-clock scenario. Frank Beachum (Isaiah Washington) is on death row, scheduled for execution in 12 hours, and he might be innocent of the murder he was convicted for. Everett, with his “nose” for news and his need to do something good with his life (he’s just about womanized his way out of his marriage), digs around and tries to find evidence that someone else, not Frank, pulled the trigger on a pregnant cashier clerk.

That isn’t really what True Crime is about, though. Clint Eastwood will be 70 next year, and he has a little daughter (Francesca Fisher-Eastwood, who appears in the movie as Everett’s daughter) young enough to be his great-granddaughter. A scene in which Everett gives his little girl a “speed zoo” trip — rushing her through the zoo because he’s on a deadline — is touching for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot. And we see the condemned Frank Beachum saying a long goodbye to his own daughter. The movie is about the pain of fathers who won’t live to see their little girls grow up, and who, whether because of jail or work, can’t spend what little time they have left with their daughters.

Once I picked up on that, the plot didn’t get less routine, but everything around it got more telling. Everett, we see, fools around with much younger women out of fear of his own mortality (is that also why Clint has traditionally done likewise?). Meanwhile, the story drifts away, and the movie is structured in a conventional way that lets us know it won’t end tragically (as, say, A Perfect World did). There are no surprises — no Primal Fear revelation, no defeatist ending in which Everett’s efforts come to naught. (Some may register a bit of surprise that the former Dirty Harry now comes down, in effect, against capital punishment.) What keeps the movie alive is its subtext. It’s always interesting to read between the lines of Eastwood’s recent movies and see what’s really on his mind, but I wish he’d be a little more picky about his material.

Mystery Men

August 6, 1999

Superheroes have always been a hair away from the absurd: I mean, c’mon — Batman? Aquaman? Spider-Man? Thus, four-color gods have been targets for parody almost as long as comics have existed. I’m not familiar with Bob Burden’s original “Mystery Men” stories (which appeared in his cult-favorite, absurdist comic Flaming Carrot), but imaginative writers in the medium have long punctured the self-serious balloon of pulp superfiction. Alan Moore’s Watchmen imagined a universe in which superheroes were outlawed and driven into exile; it was a serious work that nonetheless treated its heroes as misfit schlubs (picture Albert Brooks in a cape and mask). The caustic British comic Marshal Law recast superheroes as power-drunk psychos; the hero was the guy who killed superheroes.

So, to longtime comics readers — whether or not they’ve read Burden’s take on the supergenre — the movie Mystery Men is nothing new. To the average moviegoer, though, it will feel fresh, and it has an added layer of parody: as directed by Kinka Usher (famous for his “Yo quiero Taco Bell” ads), the movie is often a straight-faced take-off of the movies that almost double-handedly killed the superhero-movie genre — Joel Schumacher’s neon-soaked Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Top it off with a mega-hip cast — finally, Janeane Garofalo as a superheroine! — and you have an instant cult comedy that doesn’t walk or talk like anything else out there.

In Champion City, the corporate-sponsored ubermensch Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear in full pompous bloom) is bored. He’s defeated every supervillain worth his time; the only baddies left are scrappy gangs without guidance. The Captain has an idea: His greatest adversary, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, cheerfully gobbling the scenery), is about to be paroled, and the Captain greases the wheels for Casanova’s release from the asylum. He then smugly pays a visit to Casanova, who just as smugly takes him hostage. Crime begins to run rampant again in Champion City. Someone must save the day.

Someone turns out to be a group for whom the term “motley crew” was invented. We have: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), desperately in need of anger-management counseling; the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), a faux-exotic hero who hurls every bit of silverware except knives (“I’m not Stab Man,” he insists); the Shoveler (William H. Macy), darn good with a shovel; the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who wields a mean bowling ball; the Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose finger you do not want to pull; the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can become invisible only when nobody’s looking; and the Sphinx (Wes Studi), the movie’s goof on Jedi Masters. Given such unlikely material, these fine comic actors (even the sober-sided Wes Studi packs a fine deadpan) give each scene and line of dialogue a spin off-center. Other hipsters turn up for the party, too: Tom Waits as a weapons specialist, Eddie Izzard and Pras as disco gangsters, Lena Olin looking great (but unfortunately not doing much else) as Casanova’s partner in crime.

Those not attuned to the movie’s wobbly brand of humor (I laughed pretty much all the way through) will consider Mystery Men yet another cluttered dud wasting a killer cast. For me, the cast makes the movie — the idea that all these people wanted to put on goofy costumes and poke deadpan fun at lurid comic-book clichés and the movies those clichés spawned. Mystery Men has an exuberantly tacky look; it gives you the cheap pleasures of brainless blockbusters without actually being brainless. It even has a biting subtext: the obscure, working-class heroes laboring in the shadow of the mighty Captain Amazing, either resentful of his success or in awe of it. Their ultimate triumph is not defeating the nefarious Casanova Frankenstein, but finally getting some media attention. One wonders how long it will be before the Bowler has Pepsi ads stuck all over her ball, or Mr. Furious starts doing TV commercials for Prozac.

The Sixth Sense

August 6, 1999

Now here’s the movie I wanted The Blair Witch Project to be. True, The Sixth Sense isn’t in the class of horror heavyweights like Halloween; it’s more of a respectable middleweight, but it packs a wallop when it decides to let fly. This may be a case of a movie betrayed by its own trailer: Spookily photographed and edited, the trailer nonetheless suggested Mercury Rising meets The Shining — a little boy sees ghosts, and here’s Bruce Willis to the rescue! — and the little boy in question, one Haley Joel Osment, seemed stiff and stilted in his too-whispery delivery. This was going to be a turkey, no doubt about it.

Well, there’s a lot to be said for going into a movie with low expectations. Aside from a couple of unnecessary scenes, The Sixth Sense is a low-key triumph of mood and menace; the most shocking thing about it is how hushed and intimate it is, how softly and quietly it goes about its business of creeping us out. The movie is all of a piece, which is probably why the scenes in the trailer, ripped out of context, feel a bit cheesy. In context, the quietly fear-stricken performance of 11-year-old Osment, as the haunted Cole Sear, works beautifully. It works even better after you’ve seen the film and put the pieces together — about which, more later.

Cole is scared to death almost all the way through the movie, as well he should be: Dead people who don’t know they’re dead are visiting him, and he doesn’t know what they want from him. Enter child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Willis), who gently tries to prod the boy into revealing his secret. For a while, we’re not sure whether Cole is actually seeing ghosts, or is just a lonely little boy acting out in the wake of his parents’ divorce. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan gives us an early exchange between Cole and Malcolm that speaks volumes: Malcolm guesses that the watch Cole is wearing was given to him by his (absent) father, and Cole shakes his head and says solemnly, “He forgot it in his drawer. It doesn’t work.”

Malcolm is drawn to Cole because of an earlier incident — a former child patient, now grown, who freaked out and became violent. Cole reminds Malcolm of that patient, and the doctor sees Cole as his chance for redemption. The heart of The Sixth Sense is in soft-spoken conversations between Malcolm and Cole, as well as between Cole and his frazzled but loving mom (the excellent Toni Collette). There is no cheesy subplot in which Malcolm and Cole’s mom become romantically involved, even though Malcolm’s own marriage seems to be in trouble; you know a guy’s working too hard when the wife he’s ignoring is Olivia Williams (Rushmore).

Shyamalan, working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs), takes time on the mood and atmosphere — the possibility of the uncanny in mundane settings. (There’s also a hidden-video-camera bit more disturbing than anything in Blair Witch.) There are swipes here and there — a Poltergeist nod, for example — but the movie lays realistic groundwork for the supernatural events to come. And when they come, they are all the more unsettling for being rather matter-of-fact.

The Sixth Sense also, as you may have heard by now, boasts a nice curveball ending; I liked it the other few times I’ve seen it before, but I didn’t see it coming here. (Among other things, you realize why Cole whispers throughout the movie.) The best curveball the movie throws, though, is that it dares to be small-scale, quiet, and low-tech in a shrill era for horror.


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