Archive for May 2001

Pearl Harbor

May 25, 2001

It’s probably damning with faint praise to say that Pearl Harbor may be the closest thing to a good movie Michael Bay will ever direct; unfortunately, it’s still not anywhere close to a good movie. A lot of observers have rooted for this big, $135 million, 183-minute baby to fall flat on its diaper, asserting itself as the unquestionable, contemptible bomb that will finally vanquish Bay’s attention-deficit-disorder style of filmmaking for good. Bay, however, has crafted a watchable and sometimes even dumbly entertaining spectacle out of very base material (the “script” is blamed on Braveheart‘s Randall Wallace).

The question is whether an epic about an American catastrophe should be dumbly entertaining. Let’s tackle the thing itself, up front: The December 7, 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which flares up more than an hour into the film, contains some of the most seamless computer-generated destruction effects you’ve ever seen. The many men and women who toiled endlessly to deliver a convincing re-enactment of the bombing deserve to take a bow. But underneath all this is the callous sensibility of a director who frames it all as a percussive fireworks bash out of Star Wars. Closer to the mark, Pearl Harbor is really Independence Day with historical credentials: “Aliens” attack; America fights back.

The center of Pearl Harbor is not the Hawaiian military base itself, but a romantic triangle. Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, hot-shot fighter pilots and best buddies since childhood, fall in love with the same woman, nurse Kate Beckinsale. This, I suppose, is designed for people who like their historical tragedy decorated with the doily of fictional romance — the same people who made Titanic such a hit. But whereas James Cameron was able to persuade us that the affair between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet was in the stars and just happened to unfold aboard a doomed cruise liner, Bay cannot hoodwink us into thinking that Beckinsale’s romantic anguish is anything other than demographically shrewd.

After Japan hits us hard, FDR (Jon Voight, in makeup not quite as seamless as the computer graphics) inspires his staff to achieve the impossible — a retaliatory strike on Tokyo — by standing up out of his wheelchair on shaky legs. I took that as a neat metaphor for the movie, which can never quite stand on its own two feet. Everything in it is imported from better (and sometimes equally bad) movies. When Beckinsale wraps her hanky around Affleck’s neck for good luck, I couldn’t help thinking I’d just seen the gesture in two other movies this season, A Knight’s Tale and Shrek. When Colonel James Doolittle makes countless speeches to beef up his men’s courage, Alec Baldwin is interchangeable with Bill Pullman in Independence Day, rallying the troops with tough-guy doggerel. Asked what the men should do if their planes start going down over Tokyo, Doolittle says he would try to crash into as much military stuff as possible on the way down. “But,” he adds hilariously and anachronistically, “that’s just me.”

It’s undoubtedly no accident that Pearl Harbor arrived on Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the launchpad for the summer’s Big Movie but also supposedly the time set aside to remember those who fell in battle. But the movie’s gung-ho heroic spirit disturbingly suggests, albeit inadvertently, that the real heroes were those who survived; those who died obviously didn’t have the right stuff. This is far from the truth, of course, since war claims the brave and cowardly alike, but movies like Pearl Harbor, with its broad-stroke Wagnerian approach to war and tragedy, hark back to the hollow John Wayne combat pictures in which the conflict was easily delineated and the heroes made it through with barely a scratch (as well as a few sad losses for the audience to sniffle over while knowing that anyone whose name appeared above the title on the poster was safe from harm). To me, any movie that tries to sell the audience on war as a proving ground for noble men (and women) is no better than a recruitment poster for death, and dishonors those who died at Pearl Harbor and every other field of battle. But that’s just me.

Shrek

May 18, 2001

If you’re in the mood for a postmodern, ironic fairy-tale spoof, and if you’re young enough not to have seen what went before (Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales, William Goldman and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, Shelley Duvall’s tongue-in-cheek Faerie Tale Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, etc.), you might have a good time at the new DreamWorks computer-toon Shrek. Or maybe you won’t; like DreamWorks’ Antz, this movie goes so far in including hip references to amuse bored parents that I’m tempted to say Shrek isn’t even really for kids at all. At the Friday-afternoon, packed-with-kids screening I attended, an extended riff on the “Do You Know the Muffin Man” ditty got no laughs whatsoever; not much else did either, aside from the tried-and-true fart and butt humor.

Shrek is based more or less — more less than more — on a 1990 children’s book by legendary cartoonist William Steig, who was well into his eighties when he wrote and drew it, yet managed to deliver something far funkier and pricklier than the cadre of hip DreamWorks whippersnappers (two directors and seven writers are credited) have yielded. The book’s conversion into an expensive kiddie flick painted with bits and bytes may remind some of the unhappy fate of Chris Van Allsburg’s brisk, haunting book Jumanji, which got morphed into a flabby Robin Williams vehicle. Shrek isn’t as bad as that; some of it is diverting (I enjoyed the scenes dealing with a love-smitten dragon, coyly fluttering its huge eyelashes). But I can’t imagine it occupying a warm space in children’s hearts, since it skewers clichés they’ve only just begun to absorb. Can’t we allow kids a few years of innocence before we pop it with the ever-ready pin of irony?

Mike Myers indulges his Scotphilia yet again, bringing his cheerful brogue to the lead character Shrek, a green ogre who wants to be left alone to mope in his swamp. Problem: the nasty Lord Farquaad (the usual hammy voice work by John Lithgow) has banished all fairy-tale creatures from his kingdom, and they have all taken refuge in Shrek’s stomping grounds. To restore them to their homes, Shrek must undertake a quest on Farquaad’s behalf: rescue the fair Princess Fiona (voice by Cameron Diaz) from a dragon’s lair, with the help of a talkative donkey (Eddie Murphy, enjoying this stage of his career as an entertainer at children’s parties).

Shrek moves fast, and its quartet of credited writers (including two who worked on Disney’s Aladdin and DreamWorks’ Small Soldiers) keep the pop references popping. Much has been made of the fact that DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may be sending a poison valentine to his former bosses at Disney, and indeed the Mouse comes in for some swatting; when the donkey begins to segue into a heartfelt song, he’s rudely cut off by Shrek, who insists, “No singing” — an obvious swipe at Disney’s penchant for Oscar-ready ballads. The outskirts of the evil Farquaad’s kingdom, too, from its “It’s a Small World” clutter of singing animatronic heads to the rope-maze guarded by a man in a big-head Farquaad costume, fairly scream “Disneyland.” Shrek bends over backwards to assure us that it won’t be as square as Disney’s stuff.

That’s nice, but it doesn’t assure us of much else. Too much of Shrek seems like gags dreamed up by jaded adults. One scene, in which Princess Fiona makes short work of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, includes a poke at The Matrix and its crouching-tigress-hidden-wires, frozen-in-mid-air battles. First problem with this: the Matrix money shots have already been overparodied. Second, what kids in the audience would have seen the R-rated Matrix in order to get the joke? It’s there for Mom and Dad. Third, Princess Fiona’s battle skills are established here but then never repeated; in a later scene, when surrounded by Farquaad’s guards, she’s suddenly helpless. Shrek’s fighting acumen is similarly inconsistent; he’s shown in an early scene laying a smackdown on a bunch of Farquaad’s knights — in a scene eerily reminiscent of A Knight’s Tale, with its backdrop of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” — and then later, when surrounded by the same Farquaad guards, he’s suddenly helpless too. In short, the ability of our heroes to defend themselves depends on whether the filmmakers need an easy laugh or thrill at a given moment.

The movie is capably designed and enthusiastically voiced, though computer-generated animation still hasn’t yet lost its creepy plastic sheen (compare it with the advanced yet homey Claymation seen in Chicken Run, for instance). I cannot — perhaps it is a function of my age — look at movies like Shrek (or Toy Story) without being aware that I’m watching digital shadows; the characters seem locked behind Plexiglas, untouched and untouchable. Untouching, too. Shrek gestures towards a typical humanistic message (Don’t judge others by their appearance), but the story is too busy trashing other legends and archetypes to emerge as a legend of its own. One can’t help thinking that The Princess Bride did it earlier and funnier, and did not take five years in the making or involve armies of techies sitting in front of Macs. There’s no real reason Shrek couldn’t have been a regular, drawn cartoon; there’s little reason it couldn’t have just stayed a book, either. If computer animation is all that sets it apart, then it doesn’t have much setting it apart.

A Knight’s Tale

May 11, 2001

Surprise, surprise: A Knight’s Tale, after weeks of obnoxious hype (if you weren’t sick of “We Will Rock You” before, you probably are now), turns out to be not bad and sometimes even pretty damn good. Not that A Knight’s Tale will bear much comparison to The Canterbury Tales or even Excalibur. Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential and directed 1999’s Payback, has made a cheerful beer-and-pizza movie that maybe deserves to rank alongside George Romero’s Knightriders as well as some of the sword-and-sorcery movies of the ’80s (Conan the Barbarian, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster) whose chief charm was that they didn’t even pretend to be “accurate.” A Knight’s Tale is unabashedly contemporary in tone and spirit, and why the hell not? It’s not as if Hollywood has never done that before. If you want the real deal, go read Chaucer in the original Middle English (I have; he makes Eminem look like Mr. Rogers).

Heath Ledger acquits himself competently enough as William Thatcher, a peasant’s son who works as a squire for an over-the-hill knight (Helgeland’s opening text actually calls him “over-the-hill,” a fair indication of what kind of movie this is; it also refers to jousting “fans”). When the knight expires, William dons his armor and, with the help of fellow groundlings Roland (Mark Addy, making the same immediate tubby-regular-guy connection with the audience that he made in The Full Monty) and Wat (Alan Tudyk, going for Johnny Rotten in look and attitude), passes himself off as “Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland” despite having no particular Germanic accent. Securing fake “patents of nobility” from an on-his-uppers Chaucer himself (the scene-stealing Paul Bettany, who bears more than a little resemblance to Helgeland), William is ready to joust.

Ah, yes, the jousting. Playing to medieval-era arena crowds (all they need is a rainbow-head John 3:16 guy in the stands), the jousting competitions hinge on breaking your lance against another guy’s armor or knocking him off his horse. The jousts become funny in their very repetition (smash! back for another pass! smash!) and phallic nature (the guy with the truest stick wins). The horses thundering along, the knights with their lances poised — great stuff, say I; unless you’re the sort who haunts renaissance faires (and I don’t blame you if you’re not), you don’t see this very often, and the low-tech spectacle of men bashing each other with big poles is absurdly gratifying.

William’s main competition on the field is the jerky Rufus Sewell, whose imperious countenance has doomed him to play treacherous wankers forevermore. William’s competition off the field is his own heart, which wants to hand itself to the shiny lady-in-waiting Jocelyn. As played by Shannyn Sossamon, Jocelyn mainly beams or pouts like a medieval Denise Richards; I would’ve rather seen William go for his trusty blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser), who’s meant to be a tomboy, though the make-up and wardrobe departments amusingly forget to make her tomboyish.

There’s a good deal of goofing around (Helgeland is deft at warming us to the four buddies via William Goldman-esque badinage and snarky asides), as well as a needless subplot involving William’s dad, which comes with its own laborious flashbacks; I’m convinced Helgeland could’ve had a fast, streamlined drive-in movie had he deleted the Dad material, which adds little except minutes. Still, A Knight’s Tale is jolly enough armor-clanging, and, yes, the rock songs on the soundtrack do enhance the fun. The use of “We Will Rock You” at the beginning suggests that, for all its mainstream exertions, A Knight’s Tale is actually something of an experimental melding of old and new. By the time Helgeland gets to a dance sequence set to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” you’ve either accepted the musical choices or left the building in disgust. I was still there, and happy.

Ed Gein

May 4, 2001

Ed Gein, as many horror fans can tell you, was the real-life inspiration for Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs). In the ’50s in Wisconsin, he did creative things with human remains, including dressing up in women’s skins. He died in an institution in 1984. If not for this sick bastard, the horror genre would be minus three enduring icons.

Of course, Tobe Hooper, Robert Bloch, and Thomas Harris embellished a bit. Aside from his bizarre proclivities, ol’ Ed was a pretty dull guy. Which could make for a pretty dull movie; fortunately, Ed Gein is better than that. It tries for, and occasionally achieves, the same sort of queasy, drab, kitchen-sink realism as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. As well it should, since it shares that film’s music composer and editor; Ed Gein‘s director, Chuck Parello, also did the sequel to Henry.

Ed Gein isn’t quite in the same ballpark as Henry, but at least it’s playing the same sport. It does boast a peerlessly creepy performance by Steve Railsback, who embodies Ed just as indelibly as he portrayed Charles Manson in Helter Skelter 25 years ago. What’s good about the movie is essentially all Railsback (also a producer on the film): his blank amiability, his hapless attempts to connect with people, and especially a sequence of such ghastly black humor — Ed giggling like a kid while trying on a variety of severed noses — that I won’t forget it any time soon. On the minus side, the whole mama’s-boy thing gets tiresome (Carrie Snodgress plays Ed’s viciously religious mother in flashbacks — and hallucinations, egging Ed on to take care of those “filthy whores”). We’ve simply seen the Psycho Got That Way Because of His Nutty Punitive Bible-Thumping Mama thing in too many other movies.

Despite its subject matter (and lack of MPAA rating), Ed Gein isn’t all that graphic — not in terms of overt onscreen violence. You do see lots of aftermath, though — a woman’s body dressed out like a deer; a disembodied vagina lying on a kitchen counter; Ed dancing in the moonlight wearing his special costume. The murders themselves are bland gunshot affairs; the true horrors happen offscreen.

The film tries to be a serious movie about Ed Gein and, again, mostly succeeds (it’s not the movie’s fault, really, that everyone under the sun co-opted the Religious Mama thing). It has a low-simmering intensity, but there aren’t really any powerful moments like the original Henry‘s several bowel-loosening moments. Henry was unafraid to dive headlong into tabloid territory (think of the ugly montage of Henry’s trail of corpses in the first five minutes); Ed Gein mostly minds its manners. Certainly it’s the mildest biopic of a cannibalistic necrophiliac you’ll ever see. It’s far from a horror movie as everyone usually defines “horror movie.” You don’t see Ed going wacky with a chainsaw, or anything.

Because studios are populated by idiots, Ed Gein (whose working title, In the Light of the Moon, I much prefer) didn’t get a real theatrical release. Serious, artful movies like this and Ginger Snaps go straight to video in America, while studios are happy to roll out smegma like Valentine and Soul Survivors on 2,000 screens. Its lack of an MPAA rating probably didn’t help, either. Far from a freewheeling Saturday-night horror flick, Ed Gein is a clenched and (mostly) restrained effort, like its near-contemporaries Dahmer and Ted Bundy. If you’re looking for more of a guilty-pleasure Ed film, there’s always the 2006 attempt with Kane Hodder. But Steve Railsback gives us probably the definitive cinematic Gein, and the movie is eminently worthwhile for him alone.


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