Archive for March 2001

Spy Kids

March 30, 2001

808066-spy-kidsEven in his gun-heavy films for grown-ups — El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn — Robert Rodriguez has always had an infectious, childlike sense of play. (It was missing from his competent but undistinguished The Faculty, where he was essentially a hired gun.) It would seem natural, then, to turn him loose on a kiddie adventure and give him money for lavish, surreal sets and special effects. Spy Kids, which Rodriguez wrote, directed, and edited, plays like the pilot episode for a smarter-than-average Saturday-morning kids’ show that you always read good things about but always somehow forget to catch. It’s considerably colorful and entertaining while it spins in front of you; it’s also almost immediately forgettable.

That may be by design, though. Rodriguez knows kids (he has three of them), and he knows that kids love repetition. Spy Kids is the sort of light comedic caper kids will want to watch over and over, with lots of eye-catching weird stuff, like robots made entirely out of thumbs or an evil lair with a jigsaw-puzzle motif out of Dali. Adults may respond gratefully, in that the movie — unlike the majority of crap shovelled at kids — is far from stupid, it’s energetically crafted, it prizes brains and bravery over brawn and force, and it’s not weighed down by winking pop-culture references that are meant to keep parents from yawning but usually don’t.

Adult fans of Rodriguez’ other films will also be glad he’s finally got a major hit on his hands, and he did it without selling out. Spy Kids feels like a Rodriguez riff through and through. The young heroes, Carmen (Alexa Vera) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), are not lovable wise-cracking urchins but regular kids whose parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) just happen to be spies. When Mom and Dad are kidnapped by the evil genius Floop (Alan Cumming), host of a kiddie show that resembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse more than a little, Carmen and Juni rush to the rescue, aided by a variety of nifty vehicles and gadgets. Rodriguez consistently gives his heroes the sort of immensely cool toys most kids would love to play with.

In fact, for that very reason, Spy Kids often comes across as a very, very covert broadside at the James Bond series, which is, after all, a boys-with-toys franchise; it’s as if Rodriguez is breaking the spy genre down to its essentials and finding that, when you get right down to it and take away the Bond girls, these movies are for kids. (Or at least for men who like to regress to adolescent boyhood for two hours.) Rodriguez generously makes Carmen the older, smarter one, and Juni the fearful one; both kids, though, get to rise to the occasion, as when Carmen swoops around on a jet backpack and saves her brother’s life, or when Juni finds a way to communicate with a backward-talking mutant in Floop’s dungeon.

In general, Spy Kids is light-hearted and sometimes ingenious family entertainment. However … “What’s missing?” asks Floop when he senses that his show lacks a certain something. Spy Kids does, too, and I think I can pin it down: the film carries the vague insecurity of the beginning of a franchise (the studio has already greenlit the sequel). Obviously, nothing in the movie stands out as being bad, but nothing really stands out as being amazing, either. You occasionally see Rodriguez pulling back, not because this is a kids’ movie but because he wants to hand Dimension a solid start to a Spy Kidstentpole, without anything too outrageous or expensive.

The action sequences go by fast and aren’t given time to build excitement or laughs (the way that, say, Rodriguez’ hilarious segment of Four Rooms built one disaster atop another); there aren’t any set pieces that lodge in your mind, just odd, funky details like a floor that seems to fall away but doesn’t, or robotic spy kids whose eyes glow (like the kids in Village of the Damned), or Tony Shalhoub’s quiet, witty bit of business as a Floop minion (he’s even named Minion) who tries to sit in his boss’s diabolical chair but can’t quite get comfortable in it.

Rodriguez seems comfortable in his own chair, though. Though he hasn’t provided Spy Kids with any glorious moments of action-adventure excess reminiscent of past classics or even his own films, he may have begun something here. Making a film for kids, with intelligence and without condescension, can be a greater challenge than making an intense art-house drama. It’d be interesting to see what such directors as Spike Lee or Steven Soderbergh would do in the kiddie genre, now that Rodriguez has made it look cool and fun to follow his lead.

Say It Isn’t So

March 23, 2001

Many words could describe Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the Rhode Island filmmaking brothers behind Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, and Me, Myself & Irene: “outrageous,” “blissfully tasteless,” “genuinely hilarious.” To this list, sadly, we must now add “generous to a fault.” Say It Isn’t So cannot be fully blamed on them, though it does bear the Farrelly imprimatur (“From the guys who did There’s Something About Mary,” the ads boast). They only produced the film (and reportedly did a script polish), giving it to untested friends to write and direct — and this is where “generous to a fault” comes in.

Director J.B. Rogers (the Farrellys’ former assistant director) and writers Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow (who appeared as motel cops in Irene) must be grateful for this shot at making their own movie. If only they had made their own movie. Say It Isn’t So is like a cretinous frat boy’s idea of what made Mary a hit. The filmmakers repay their benefactors the Farrellys with the insincerest form of flattery — not just imitation, but inept imitation. The movie piles on the grotesque sight gags and cruel humor, as if that were all there was to the Farrelly blockbusters. The sickest joke of all is that the Farrellys produced this self-ripoff; did they just want to compete with everyone else who’s ripping them off (i.e., Road Trip and its ilk)?

We have the standard Farrelly hero, Gilly (Chris Klein), a tender-hearted guy who works for the Animal Rescue League; he falls for the standard Farrelly babe, Jo (Heather Graham), a klutzy but sweet hairdresser. They’re both very boring, with none of the quirks and odd background details the Farrellys usually include. They’re ecstatic together until they learn a devastating secret (they must not have seen the movie’s ads) — they’re brother and sister. While Gilly is excoriated all over town for being an incestuous creep, the heartbroken Jo runs to devious rich boy Jack (Eddie Cibrian) and gets engaged to him. Then, of course, Gilly discovers Jo isn’t really his sister, and the movie pretty much loses whatever point it may have had.

What we have here is a wannabe-outrageous comedy that flirts with the last taboo but then retreats. This is kindergarten stuff. Anyone who’s seen Spanking the Monkey, the 1994 mother-son incest comedy by David O. Russell, knows that not only can the taboo be mined for laughs, it can be mined brilliantly and compassionately, sans jokes about getting one’s hand stuck up a cow’s orifice, or a stroke victim talking through a voice enhancer bought at Wal-Mart, or various gross-outs involving bird shit, ear-snipping, nipple piercing, or armpit sweat used as a sandwich condiment. In short, the fake-incest angle is the least offensive aspect of the movie, which is often tasteless and disgusting but never, never funny.

It’s a toss-up as to who has the most thankless scenes: Chris Klein with a fake beard made out of pubic hair; Orlando Jones as a legless guy who keeps losing his artificial limbs; Sally Field, as Jo’s mom, a white-trash gold-digger who’s ready for Jerry Springer; Sarah Silverman, as a cop with a crush on Jo’s rich fiancé, treated contemptuously in a hot-tub blow-job joke; or poor Jack Plotnick, a capable character actor who’s been good in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Action, mugging unbearably as Jo’s real brother as if auditioning for The David Arquette Story.

Heather Graham, by virtue of not being onscreen a whole lot (despite her top billing), escapes most of the indignities; she should have escaped all of them. So should moviegoers, though if the opening weekend numbers are any indication, they already have. Maybe American audiences are smarter than I often give them credit for; they know a bogus Farrelly film when they see (or refuse to see) one.

15 Minutes

March 21, 2001

Just because Robert De Niro is one of our finest actors doesn’t mean he always has the finest taste in material. Exhibit A: 15 Minutes, a crude and reactionary piece of pulp posing as scathing media satire. The movie comes on strong; it wants us to know that TV journalists will do anything for ratings, that we’ve created a mollycoddling culture wherein no one is accountable for his own actions, that important decisions are influenced by politics and media image rather than truth and justice (throw in the American Way, too, while you’re at it). In brief, it sounds like some crank on the next barstool venting about how everything is crap.

Maybe everything is. But movies like this, with its deadening by-the-numbers script (by John Herzfeld, who also directed), flatly unbelievable situations, and paper-thin characters, won’t do much to help; if anything, by adding to the atmosphere of cynicism, it becomes part of the problem. After all, if people believe that everything is crap and nothing can be done, nothing will be done. That 15 Minutes is junky conservative propaganda makes it no better or worse than junky liberal propaganda like The Contender; both preach to the converted with an airhorn. Here, for instance, we learn that honest, law-abiding citizens can’t escape the mistakes of their past, while criminals can use the misfortunes of their past to get off scot free. They used to make ‘em like this in the ’80s, with Sylvester Stallone.

De Niro, he of the erratic taste (his Tribeca company co-produced), is Eddie Flemming, a star homicide cop — and I do mean star, the kind of cop who gets recognized on the streets of New York (“Heyyy, Eddie!”) and appears on the cover of People. Eddie crosses paths with arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) when both are sniffing around a fire scene that turns out to be homicide. It seems two thugs of Russian/Czech extraction (Russians! Evil Empire! Man, this is the ’80s again!) have murdered a former partner and his wife; now they’re trying to silence a witness to the crime. One of them also has a digital camera and wants to be Frank Capra (a “satirical” touch that can mean whatever you want it to mean). Their notion is to tape themselves committing murder, turn themselves in, plead insanity, and go free; after all, they’ve seen the sinners kneel and beg forgiveness on Roseanne’s talk show, and concluded that “nobody is responsible for what they do.”

Edward Burns, a gifted writer-director (The Brothers McMullen, She’s the One) gradually earning a name as an actor (Saving Private Ryan), is probably the best reason to see the movie. An honest and natural actor, Burns gives a weary Gen-X spin to the dog-eared scenes he’s in (he becomes, I think, the 34,492nd movie cop to plunk his badge on the captain’s desk in disgust upon being suspended). You’d think his job would be harder given that he’s up there with De Niro, but De Niro isn’t really up there. As if knowing how cardboard the movie is, he barely commits himself, except for a ridiculous scene in which he’s tied to a chair and still manages to rough up his captors — Charlie’s Angels did a similar set-piece slightly more plausibly.

15 Minutes is by no means a serious social satire. Its maker, John Herzfeld, is known mainly for his previous feature 2 Days in the Valley, which in turn is known mainly for a spandex catfight between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron (who has a useless cameo here as an escort-service manager). That film was a Tarantino-esque spree about three years too late; 15 Minutes is a media-evil movie about six years too late. Both stay stubbornly on the surface and play like inept attempts to realize some dimwitted Hollywood formula. By the end, when we get a stand-off between the enraged, gun-toting Edward Burns and one of the thugs holding a woman hostage, I almost laughed out loud, not out of contempt but out of relief — the movie had kept threatening to go from bad to worse, and, finally, here it was. If Herzfeld is right and people should be held responsible for what they do, then he should be held personally responsible for wasting one hour and fifty-nine minutes of millions of peoples’ lives. The least he can do is go on Roseanne’s show, kneel, and beg forgiveness.

Enemy at the Gates

March 16, 2001

In Enemy at the Gates, a murky and florid new war drama, Ed Harris plays a revered Nazi sniper named Major König; take the “i” out of that name and you have a Dr. Strangelove character. König has been written as a gentleman assassin, the sort of aristocratic butcher who does his job professionally, without much zeal. Damned if Ed Harris doesn’t find the soft spots in this guy, though. He makes König both iconic and human, an officer without much emotional loyalty to the Third Reich. Since Harris’ scenes are the only ones that stand out in any way, his laconically charismatic performance muddies the waters considerably. He has the aura and presence of a hero, a great man, yet he’s not playing one (much like his star turn in 1987′s Walker, still for me Harris’ best and scariest work).

No, the great man in Enemy at the Gates is supposed to be Russian sharpshooter Vassili Zaitsev, whose skill with a rifle gives the dog-tired Soviet army a lift in spirits after getting their asses kicked by the Nazis. The hometown papers exalt Vassili as a hero, a label he resists; “I can’t carry it any more,” he eventually says, referring to the media-manufactured mantle of greatness. Jude Law, who plays Vassili with none of the wit and suavity he’s shown in films ranging from Gattaca to eXistenZ to The Talented Mr. Ripley, could have been saying the same thing. Vassili’s friend Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), an officer who cranks out Soviet propaganda talking up Vassili’s acumen, performs roughly the same function as the movie itself, which introduces us to Vassili as a boy taking aim at a wolf.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, having gotten himself in over his head with 1997′s Seven Years in Tibet (wherein Brad Pitt was a Nazi soldier who met the young Dalai Lama and learned to, like, chill out and be nice), tries to structure Enemy as a wartime drama far removed from all that troublesome ideology. For most of the film, you forget — as you’re probably meant to — that this is a conflict between Stalinism and Nazism. Here it’s simply two guys who are really good at what they do, waiting for chances to blow each other away. Indeed, since the Russians are all played by Brits — including Vassili’s sweetheart (Rachel Weisz) and even old Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins, acting like he needs a good strong pint) — and the major Nazi is played by an American, the uninitiated might assume the movie is a weird amalgam of World War II and the Revolutionary War.

Annaud, like Ridley Scott before him (Gladiator), should bow in the general direction of Steven Spielberg and give thanks that Saving Private Ryan made it okay to show lots of guys getting their brainpans sprayed all over the mud and still get an R rating, as long as the carnage is in service of the Serious Theme that war is hell. There’s one nice touch that suggests the ruthless economy of war, when the Russian soldiers are allotted only one rifle per every two men, and when an armed man falls, the unarmed soldier trailing him is expected to pick up the weapon. Vassili, of course, is stuck without a rifle and has trouble getting ahold of one. It feels like a synthetic movie detail: jeez, give this guy a weapon, don’t you know he’s the hero?

A lot else in Enemy at the Gates feels synthetic, too. Poor Rachel Weisz is in the movie to prove that Vassili is heterosexual (she needs projects like The Mummy that let her have some fun; not much fun to be had here), and there’s a little Russian kid who goes back and forth between the two rival snipers; his fate brings the plot to a wholly movie-ish face-off between the furious Vassili and the weary König. I will say, though, that the scene gives Ed Harris a juicy opportunity to underplay resignation in the face of death. (If you think that’s a spoiler, you really need to see more movies.) Enemy at the Gates is worth seeing just for Harris’ expression when he realizes that his only equal in the war is about to rearrange the equation. The rest of it is flatulent hero-worship of a man played by a tired-looking actor who deserves funkier roles. Twenty years ago, a young, hungry Ed Harris might’ve played Vassili, and his intensity would’ve burned small holes in our foreheads; today he gets König, and we have to settle for what he does with that.

Memento

March 16, 2001

As you may have heard by now, the acclaimed thriller Memento is the story of a man with no short-term memory, told entirely backward. The man, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), wants to find out who raped and murdered his wife; the same “incident” that made him a widower also gave him head trauma that left him unable to “form new memories” — he can remember everything up to the event, but everything after that eludes his grasp, to the point where he has turned his whole body into a tattooed Post-It note of reminders (“John G. raped and murdered my wife,” reads one message written on his chest — backwards, so that he can read it in the mirror every time he shaves, which he also has to remind himself to do).

Would Memento be as effective if told forward instead of backward? Of course not. The brilliance of Memento is not in its story but in how it tells the story. When a scene begins, we are as disoriented as Leonard; sometimes he ends up talking to someone we haven’t seen before, and he doesn’t ever remember meeting, yet they act as if they’ve known him for a while. The scene then ends — please try to stay with me here — with the beginning of the previous scene. This is nowhere near as frustrating for the viewer as it sounds; instead, it’s transfixing and does an ingenious job of putting us inside Leonard’s fractured perception. Sometimes you get so involved in a scene that you forget you’ve already seen how it’s going to end.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose first film was a black-and-white noir (1998′s Following) little seen in America, turns up the volume of the usual noir paranoia to 11: not only can’t you trust anyone, you can’t remember why you can’t trust anyone. Yet the film is cool, contemplative, a puzzle movie in which you see the finished puzzle right up front and then watch as it disassembles itself. I could tell you who the killer of Leonard’s wife is, or seems to be, since the movie opens with Leonard getting his revenge, or seeming to; yet treachery complicates Leonard’s mission (as if it weren’t complicated enough), so when we hear a revelation at the end of the film (the movie’s chronological beginning) — a revelation that Leonard, at the movie’s beginning/story’s end, has long forgotten — we don’t know if it’s on the level or not. All I’ll say is that it’s been a while since I’ve seen a twist ending like this that works on about 17 different levels aside from turning the plot on its head.

The newly blonde, slightly stubbly Guy Pearce, looking like a more precisely chiselled Brad Pitt, underplays Leonard throughout; he’s a hero in a daze, often unconsciously funny, as when he tells the same story over and over, to the bemusement of acquaintances who’ve heard it over and over. Given the challenge of embodying a man who forgets whatever happened ten minutes ago, Pearce has to begin anew in every scene, a blank slate with vague impressions of quiet anguish. His best moment here comes when Leonard hires a prostitute for an experiment baffling to her but, to us, funny at first and then undeniably saddening.

The only other two major roles in Memento are filled by Carrie-Anne Moss, as a mysterious bartender named Natalie, and Joe Pantoliano, as a mysterious figure (criminal? cop?) named Teddy. The Matrix connection is probably no coincidence: Leonard is living in a sort of matrix himself, a shadow world in which everything is a shadow. Not long after it opened, Memento had risen to #44 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies list, voted on by registered users, making it the youngest film in the top 50. There’s a reason for that. The movie will almost surely madden some and fascinate others (some may feel both ways); if given a proper push, this could become the most talked-about cinematic Rubik’s Cube since The Usual Suspects. Yet Christopher Nolan never strikes you as a hot-shot getting high on his own narrative cleverness. Memento leaves you with an existential chill. If you see the film, ask yourself how you feel about Leonard’s final decision (or, I should say, the decision he makes before the end credits): whether it’s understandable, whether it’s justifiable, and above all, whether it really makes any damn difference.


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