Archive for February 2001

Monkeybone

February 23, 2001

When a movie teeming with imaginative visuals and ideas goes bad, it goes painfully bad. You see all the backbreaking work that went into each frame, the months of design and craftsmanship, and it all literally hurts to watch. It hurts, too, when you have to point out that all the sound and fury signify nothing. So it is with Monkeybone, a crass and frantic comedy-fantasy pitched alternately, I think, at ten-year-olds and stoned college students. It is the very definition of a February movie, a dud too weak to survive any other time of year (and probably in February, too).

It’s not as though Monkeybone lacked talent across the board. In front of the camera, you have professional madcaps like Brendan Fraser and Bridget Fonda, both attractive actors unafraid of silliness; a bleached-blonde Dave Foley; Chris Kattan, whose purely physical comedy, unaugmented by special effects, is the best thing in the movie; Giancarlo Esposito and Rose McGowan (the latter in a fetching cat costume) as denizens of a psychological netherworld; and Whoopi Goldberg as Death, seeming like the center square in a Dali-esque version of Hollywood Squares.

Behind the camera, more promisingly, we have the stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who breathed life into the creations of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl in Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Working to a greater extent with live action for the first time, Selick and his army of designers cram a prodigious volume of beasts and tortured architecture into every possible frame. The result should be a dark-fantasy joyride to bring tears of envy to Terry Gilliam’s eyes, a shoot-the-works lollapalooza of dream logic.

It’s a lollapalooza, all right. Elbowing all the flashy visuals out of the way, we find a rather sorry plot. Cartoonist Stu Miley (Fraser) is on the eve of uneasy success: his creation “Monkeybone,” a sort of Spike & Mike expression of his repressed id, has won a spot on the Comedy Channel’s schedule. Just as he’s about to pop the question to his girlfriend Julie (Fonda), Stu is knocked into a coma. His coma-induced inner life looks like a cross between the busy otherworlds of Beetlejuice and Cool World, and there he meets his creation and nemesis Monkeybone (voice by John Turturro), who wants to take over Stu’s body before Stu’s sister (Megan Mullaly) pulls the plug on him. Are you laughing yet?

Monkeybone establishes a sophomoric tone early on (in an admittedly amusing toon equating Monkeybone to Stu’s libido) and never transcends it. By the time the bogus Stu (with Monkeybone controlling his body, while the real Stu stews in limbo) is playing with farting Monkeybone dolls and hatching a diabolical plan around them, you’ve given up on the movie, unless you’re ten years old or stoned, or both. The comedy feels increasingly thin and labored; the actors, particularly poor Brendan Fraser, flail around sweating for big laughs, winning polite chuckles at best, like conscientious Saturday Night Live guest hosts trapped in an especially lame sketch. Only Chris Kattan, as a re-animated gymnast with a broken neck, scores with his aforementioned physical inventiveness, but it’s too little, too late.

It’s obvious from this movie (and from the shabby live-action framing sequences of James and the Giant Peach) that Henry Selick doesn’t do people; he functions best in a tiny stop-motion world powered by the imagination of people who think with their eyes or indulge their wit, like Burton and Dahl. (The script here is credited to Sam Hamm, adapting the comic book Dark Town by Kaja Blackley; I haven’t read it, but I hope it’s better than this.) Monkeybone shows a lot of talented people busting a gut to zap a very dead Frankenstein’s monster into life. The scattered nice touches (I liked the nightmare prison inhabited by such people as Jack the Ripper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King) only make you cringe all the more at the first-grade-level stuff about Monkeybone dolls that emit noxious gas when you pull their thumbs out of their asses. The movie does likewise.

Hannibal

February 9, 2001

To get the obvious out of the way quickly: Hannibal is not The Silence of the Lambs. By the same token, Silence of the Lambs was not Hannibal — and neither film is Manhunter, the 1986 film in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter debuted. All three are very different movies by three very different directors, all of whom bring their own style and tone to the work of Thomas Harris. To compare Hannibal to its Oscar-winning predecessor is senseless: It’s really the final movement of a trilogy, a fond farewell to a fellow Stephen King has dubbed the greatest character in 20th-century horror fiction.

Following Harris’ 1999 bestseller fairly closely, the drum-tight screenplay (credited to David Mamet and Steven Zaillian) departs from the police-procedural narrative of the first two Lecter outings. This trip is more of a Jacobean revenge play, each character motivated by wrath, pride, greed, envy, unrequited love or lust, and, in the obvious case of Lecter, gluttony — most of the deadly sins seem well-represented in Hannibal. The sole exception is FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, in for Jodie Foster), whose motives are purer; still haunted by the screaming of the lambs, she is ironically driven to save another sacrificial lamb — Lecter himself.

Lecter has been targeted by former victim Mason Verger (an uncredited, unrecognizable Gary Oldman, caressing each syllable with a decadent drawl never heard on this planet before), now horribly mutilated after a particularly ghastly encounter with his erstwhile therapist. Verger plans to capture Lecter and offer him, feet first, to a pack of ravenous boars, a diabolical irony even Lecter would appreciate. The recently disgraced Starling (suspended after a botched drug bust that wasn’t her fault) must find Lecter before Verger’s minions do; time is of the essence, though, because Verger’s men are closing in on Lecter in Florence, where he has assumed the identity of an art curator, and a decent but desperate-for-cash Italian detective (Giancarlo Giannini) is likewise on his trail, mainly for the reward money. This detective has the dual misfortune of being the descendant of a famously executed murderer and being up against a scholar of Italian history.

There is not one inessential scene in Hannibal — it’s extremely plot-centered, and those who treasured the quiet pockets of dread and sadness in Silence will miss those things here. (I would’ve liked a little more competitive scenery-chewing between Verger and Lecter, for instance.) Hannibal hits the ground running and sprints for more than two hours towards its grisly, by-now-infamous climax. What the movie lacks in emotional tonality, though, it more than makes up for in operatic Grand Guignol and dark comedy, as well as a ghoulish parody of a tragic love story. Lecter, it seems, is mesmerized by Clarice — her pain, her strength, but mainly her force of will. In the movie’s major departure from the book, the feeling is not mutual; Clarice wants to save Lecter, but only to bring him back to a cell. The choice he eventually gives Clarice — and himself — in a key moment defines both their characters superbly.

It won’t be long before you fully accept Julianne Moore as the older but wiser Clarice, with nary a backward glance at Jodie Foster’s interpretation. Without giving a better or worse performance, Moore simply makes Clarice her own, giving her the weight of ten years of defeat and frustration at the hands of FBI he-man woman-haters like Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), who takes every opportunity to halt her advancement when he isn’t crudely hitting on her. And she more than holds her own in her few scenes opposite the man of the hour, Anthony Hopkins, who could have slummed his way through Lecter this time, but doesn’t. Hopkins strolls through Hannibal like a man enjoying an intensely amusing private joke, which he shares with us alone. At times he’s so suave he could almost be the intellectual-savage version of James Bond, with Verger as his Blofeld-type nemesis. But towards the end, when Lecter tips his hand and shows the repulsed Clarice exactly what his true nature is (in a hilariously literal pun on his former profession), Hopkins shows us something new: regret and mourning for what could have been (and once was, in the book) and now can never be. He could devour her heart but will never win it.

Hannibal is a dark and complexly entertaining ride, highly generous to multiple viewings (I liked it even more the second time), but many critics, eager to express their official disapproval of matinee gross-outs, have weighed in with disproportionate venom — one viciously insulting pan, by Charles Taylor of salon.com, went so far as to compare those who enjoy Hannibal with Verger’s man-eating swine. Not everyone will be ready for this ride; the easily nauseated should probably stay home. But director Ridley Scott (redeeming himself after his oafish G.I. Jane and Gladiator) approaches Hannibal as a gruesome beauty-and-the-beast tale, in which the noble heroine keeps her virtue and her soul, while the monster battles his appetites and finds his own soul, single-handedly.

Valentine

February 2, 2001

Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I remember the slasher movies of the early ’80s, terrible as they often were, being more fun than the post-Scream crop of neo-slashers of the last few years. There was gore, there was nudity (lots of nudity), and there was a satisfied audience of teenage boys taking all this in. (This was before society decided that movies cause impressionable youths to become violent. Back then, we still believed that people were responsible for their own actions.) Today’s slasher offerings are hardly worthy of the title. Largely bloodless, featuring name actresses who refuse to disrobe gratuitously, they now have little reason to exist. I mean, if you’re going to take the gore and T & A out of these films, what’s the point?

The meretricious Valentine is 2001’s first example of the slasher genre’s pallid decline. On paper, it looked like a promising throwback — it even has two slasher staples, the Holiday Theme and the Vengeful Killer. With its premise of a former geek getting bloody revenge on the girls who rejected him in junior high school, this should’ve been an indefensible, go-for-broke, sinfully enjoyable wedge of horror cheese. Instead it’s just indefensible.

For one thing, if you’re the type who’d give Valentine a day in court — what the hell, could be fun, horror movies are fun — chances are you’ve seen it all before. This isn’t even the first Valentine’s Day horror movie — My Bloody Valentine, a Canadian import from 1981, takes that honor. And it’s certainly not the first revenge-of-the-nerd thriller: aside from the obvious (Carrie), there was also Terror Train, another Canadian import, in which a humiliated geek returns years later to decimate his classmates. Add in the routine false scares (eek! — oh, it’s only a harmless guy) as well as the predictable actual scares, consistently botched by talentless director Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend), and you’re in for a long 90 minutes.

Four college girls — Kate (Marley Shelton), Paige (Denise Richards), Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), and Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) — are worried because a psycho is sending them poison-pen valentines (“Roses are red/Violets are blue/They’ll need dental records to identify you” is one of the better ones); one of their number, a medical student who apparently preferred to do autopsies in a dark basement with her tanktop on, has already gone to the big tanktop store in the sky. We’re given several suspects, including Kate’s recovering-alcoholic boyfriend Adam (David Boreanaz, looking uncomfortable without a long black coat to flap around) and every other male on the screen. That even includes a flatly unbelievable detective on the case, who takes the opportunity to fondle one of the girls.

Valentine is yet another one of those films that Scream was supposed to have buried but instead resurrected: Everything Scream laughed at, this movie plays straight. People are always wandering off into dark, unfamiliar places alone; Denise Richards, in the movie’s pinnacle of idiocy, goes off by herself during a loud party — the killer’s on the loose, you’d think she’d want to stay among lots of people — and takes a dip in a hot tub. But don’t you see, without nudity there is no point to this scene. At least in the old slasher films, you could laugh and say, “Ah, the obligatory nude scene.” Here, it’s … Denise Richards in a bikini. Acting stupid.

Aside from that, Valentine offers some flaccid nastiness in the form of man-bashing (there’s a scene with hopeful guys angling for a date that’s almost a direct ripoff of the “Dog” scene in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It); since the only men in the movie are wimps, losers, jerks, or unreliable, it’s no wonder the women in the movie have no use for them. This shouldn’t be taken as feminism, though: the whole bloody mess gets started because a girl lies to save her own reputation, and the females are as crudely written as the males. Lack of screenwriting talent is the great equalizer, I guess. Four people wrote Valentine, two men and two women; it’s nice to know that it now takes a gender-proportional quartet to write garbage that it took one person to crank out in a weekend back in the ’80s.


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