Archive for February 2002

K-PAX

February 28, 2002

In this corner, a man who claims to be an alien from an advanced culture many light years away — is he crazy or not? In that corner, a movie audience watching the mystery unfold — do we care or not? K-PAX, a psychological-metaphysical fable starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, certainly stacks the deck in its favor by casting Spacey as the mystery man and Bridges as the affable, sincere shrink straining to unlock his secrets. But it’s such obvious casting, and halfway through K-PAX I began to wish the roles had been reversed. Spacey can do hipster inscrutability; Bridges can do strenuous compassion. Tell us something we don’t know; show us something we haven’t seen.

Some of K-PAX, mainly the scenes in which Spacey and Bridges smoothly workshop together in long dialogue passages (and that’s exactly what it feels like — two fine actors doing an enticing yet unchallenging actors’-workshop piece to limber up), keeps us tuned into the proceedings. That’s more than can be said for the fashionably brooding direction (by Iain Softley, of BackBeat and The Wings of the Dove) and the each-revelation-in-its-place script by Charles Leavitt (by way of Gene Brewer’s novel), both working overtime to strike a balance between the fantastic and the realistic. This being a Hollywood movie, the realistic is soon left out on the curb as quickly as a Christmas tree on December 26, and as mournful-looking.

The alleged alien, who says his name is Prot (rhymes with boat), is sent to good Dr. Mark Powell for evaluation and sometimes-amusing verbal ping-pong. Dr. Powell isn’t all good: he neglects his wife (Mary McCormack, as fetchingly long-suffering here as she was as Howard Stern’s wife in Private Parts) and children even in the best of times, and when Prot bedevils the doctor’s reason, the wife is left sighing resentfully in adjoining rooms while Dr. Powell lingers over Prot’s recorded voice. (Compare the dishwater tension here with the very real and intense fear and loathing Teri Garr flashes at the E.T.-obsessed Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and see how far even mainstream Hollywood extraterrestrial fables have fallen.)

Prot, of course, meets Dr. Powell’s family and even advises him to make amends with his estranged college-age son; Prot is brimming with unconventional helpfulness, becoming a calming guru for his fellow patients at the Manhattan mental institution where he resides (in a unisex ward, apparently). Prot heals whomever he touches, if they are faithful enough (or addled enough) to take up his mission; he’s a messiah for the Thorazine set. At no point does the movie toy with the possibility that Prot may be a truly dangerous delusional, though we get one or two uptight meanies (including Alfre Woodard in a thankless role) who perceive him as such. Whether Prot is truly a visitor from K-PAX or a benevolent loon, we’re meant to believe in his essential goodness, cleanliness, and Hollywoodness.

K-PAX plays rather cavalierly with real mental illnesses in a way that strikes me as disingenuous at best and faintly offensive at worst, and may be even more so for those who actually work with the mentally ill. A germphobic (Saul Williams) and an obsessive-compulsive (David Patrick Kelly, sadly neutered here of any wildness he’s shown before) are each “cured” by Prot’s soothing words and “tasks,” including one that seems to endorse attempted strangulation as brute therapy. All the hints that lead to Prot’s own breakthrough seem murky and inconsistent, too — he overreacts to a lawn sprinkler in a way that makes you think he’s a psychic who foresees a sprinkler-related catastrophe, but no, it’s connected to a forced-seeming flashback; he regresses under hypnosis and spouts a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the final revelation, which feels like reheated Fisher King. The movie’s last stab at ambiguity is neatly handled, but the image we’re left with is an immobile Kevin Spacey smuggling in the tiniest smirk of private amusement to let us know he’s still in there. That speaks for the rest of the film.

Queen of the Damned

February 22, 2002

They’ve gotten it all wrong. A vampire movie is supposed to be either great, or so ludicrously terrible you spend half an hour out in the parking lot laughing at it with friends; either way, it’s supposed to be fun. Those responsible for Queen of the Damned, which throws together two of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books (The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned), seem to have forgotten that. Certainly the movie isn’t good, but since it was headed for mediocrity the minute Warner Bros. greenlighted the script (by Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni), couldn’t they have tossed in some flamboyantly stupid moments? Just for me?

The movie takes itself with the grim seriousness of a bad rock video; it’s too dull and grinding to be any fun to laugh at. A pall hangs over the proceedings anyway, since this is the well-publicized last appearance of the singer Aaliyah, who died last year in a plane crash. Aaliyah plays the titular vamp, Queen Akasha, who used to reign over the vampire race and now wants to spend eternity with the rakish bloodsucker Lestat (Stuart Townsend) at her side.

How is Aaliyah? Her line readings are hard to judge (she’s been dubbed and sub-woofed a lot), but she seems to be having a good time hissing, slinking about, and making disobedient vampires go poof in balls of flame and dust. Whatever life there is to the movie is what she brings to it; she had star presence, and her eagerness to play a glamorous villain in a big-budget horror movie gives her scenes a lift the film sorely needs.

Put Aaliyah next to Stuart Townsend and he looks twice as bad as he does otherwise. Townsend’s Lestat is supposed to be a rock star — a goth-grunge-metal icon, with music and singing voice helpfully provided by Jonathan Davis of the band Korn — but Townsend comes off more like the kind of high-school kid who gets beat up a lot. Queen of the Damned veers closest to the hilarious when it’s trying to sell us this guy as some sort of dark undead Svengali. Unfortunately, Lestat is who we’re stuck with for most of the movie, occasionally trailed by a vampire-huntress with obscure motives (Marguerite Moreau, in an awful performance) and by Marius (Vincent Perez), the vampire who “made” Lestat centuries ago.

Lestat issues an open challenge to his vampire brothers and sisters to come and get him, an apparently suicidal agenda (he’s tired of spending eternity alone) that results in a bunch of them attacking him onstage at a big concert. The hardcore, eyebrow-pierced audience is horrified when Lestat flits around slaying his own kind in self-defense; if director Michael Rymer (another rock-video veteran) had any wit, he’d have had the audience go nuts, thinking it was all part of the show. The movie doesn’t tell us whether the crowd demands its money back after Lestat is whisked away by Akasha; after all, he barely gets through one song.

Queen of the Damned obviously isn’t for Anne Rice devotees; it gives us blink-and-you-miss-them appearances by the vampires Armand and Pandora (who each later got their own books), without explaining who they are — they’re just vampire furniture. The humans, in turn, are human furniture — I was dismayed to see Paul McGann, forever cool in my book for being the “I” in the British classic Withnail & I, reduced to a Basil Exposition role as a studious type who gives the vampire-huntress much-needed tips (hell, just throw some tweed on him and call him Giles). It’s not much for vampire fans, either (they’re all waiting for Blade II), and it’s not really for Aaliyah fans (she doesn’t turn up until about the halfway mark).

Who’s it for, then? Whoever happens to wander into the theater with nothing better to do with the afternoon? It was rumored (falsely, claimed the studio) that Queen of the Damned had been consigned to a direct-to-video fate, and that only Aaliyah’s death helped avert that fate. Whatever the truth, this is the kind of disposable, watch-it-while-doing-household-chores film that was made for video.

John Q

February 15, 2002

The rabble-rousing John Q is supposed to make us angry, but it only made me angry at the movie itself. The serious issue of health care — or, more precisely, the disgraceful state of it in America for those who can’t afford it — is exploited and squandered in a manipulative hostage drama wherein Denzel Washington, driven around the bend because he can’t afford the heart transplant his dying little boy desperately needs, brings a gun into the hospital and starts making demands. Never mind that there are other people in the emergency room (which he commandeers) who need medical attention and whose lives are put at risk. Never mind that the movie comes dangerously close to saying that the solution to a personal grievance is, well, terrorism, when you get right down to it.

No, we’re expected to ride right along with Denzel (playing an everyman factory worker cutely named John Q. Archibald) as he rages against the machine. I sympathize with his dilemma and his anger; you’d be hard put to find anyone who wouldn’t. But this man, who in a better movie might be drawn as a decent but deeply flawed and disturbed person, is shoved down our throats as a hero. John Q tries everything to get his boy onto the list for a heart donation, but the hospital (personified by Anne Heche in a performance that goes right past cold into Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9, until a key moment when she thaws out) tells him he needs to put up $75,000 of the $250,000 cost of the procedure. Washington makes John Q’s frustration — and single-minded drive to raise the money — palpable; he takes the premise far more seriously than it deserves.

What would you do if you were John Q (or Jane Q, named Denise here and played with moments of admirable directness by Kimberly Elise)? John Q doesn’t seem to think of picketing outside the hospital, a guaranteed public-relations nightmare that might embarrass the hospital into capitulating. No, he grabs a gun and resorts to threats, being a working-class black man, of course. I doubt that director Nick Cassavetes or screenwriter James Kearns were conscious of the racism and classism at the core of John Q, but it’s there anyway. The racism goes both ways, too: John’s antagonists, Heche and a diffident heart surgeon snippily played by James Woods, are lighted as if dipped in bleach. This is known as cross-manipulation.

Robert Duvall is on hand as a hostage negotiator, who immediately breaks Kevin Spacey’s first rule of said job in The Negotiator, telling John Q, “There’s no way in or out.” Ray Liotta, as a trigger-happy police chief, does an uninspired sequel to his Cro-Magnon FBI suit in Hannibal; Duvall’s own performance is a follow-up to his retiring cop in Falling Down – once again, Duvall, the bald-eagle Voice of Reason, has a monomaniacal nut with a gun to deal with. In the emergency room with John Q, there’s a sort of trash-movie Greek chorus of stereotypes, including a wife-beating Guido (Shawn Hatosy) and a comic-relief black guy (Eddie Griffin) who actually suggests something like “We need to get some fried chicken up in here.” Hell, make it a watermelon, go all the way with it.

Fortunately, a heart is on the way — from a donor recently deceased in a car crash, but we don’t feel too sorry for her, because we see from her car and its decor that she’s got moola. Meanwhile, John Q stands before a gathering crowd outside the hospital — it’s Denzel’s “Attica! Attica!” moment — and delivers the following wisdom, which I swear is reproduced here verbatim: “When someone gets sick, they deserve help! Sick! Help! Sick! Help!” So moved was I by this revelatory outburst that I now pass along some wisdom of my own: When a movie is bad, it deserves to be avoided! Bad! Avoid! Bad! Avoid!


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