Archive for July 2002

Signs

July 29, 2002

Mel-Gibson-and-Rory-Culkin-foreground-and-Abigail-Breslin-and-Joaquin-Phoenix-background-in-Touchstones-Signs-2002-0Signs is a thriller of the classical school — a bump-in-the-night thriller — with the globally simultaneous unease of the days after September 11 informing every scene, even though the script was completed well before that day. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, never met an ominous hush he didn’t like. This 32-year-old already has the rigorous control of a seasoned master of tension; the audience leans forward with pleasure, relieved to be seduced by a movie instead of raped. Shyamalan takes his time, drawing out the exquisite silences, the small trembling portents of terror. He’s often been likened to Steven Spielberg, but for me the more useful comparison is to producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, who collaborated on some of the finest dread-ridden supernatural horror of the 1940s.

Clearly with encouragement from the director, Mel Gibson holds himself in — way in — as Father Graham Hess, a widower and father of two. Glazed over with grief and existential despair — Graham has left the church and no longer believes there’s a benevolent creator watching out for us — Gibson, I think, permits himself a brief smile exactly twice in 107 minutes; the performance makes Bruce Willis’ elaborate gloom in Unbreakable look pink-faced with glee. Yet it works; Gibson is believably hollow, fed up with the great failed love between him and his god. When strange things start happening around Graham’s Pennsylvania farm, he’s not in much of a position to comfort his kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), or his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives in a spare house on the land. They want to believe in something; he believes in nothing.

A tauntingly perfect pattern in the crops, dogs barking, the stalks of wheat rustling — Shyamalan lays each hint of the uncanny in place. This director likes to take pulpy premises and make them small-scale and personal; here, it’s as if he took the brief scene at the beginning of many alien-invasion movies — the rural family discovering possible evidence of intruders, soon forgotten when the main plot of Earth Vs. Them kicks in — and stayed inside that scene for the whole movie. Except for a few flashbacks to a past trauma, and a scene where the family goes into town for pizza, Signs more or less locks itself behind the doors of the Hess farmhouse; it has some of the claustrophobic, they’re-out-there paranoia of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13.

Some may feel that Shyamalan stumbles in the home stretch, both by drawing back the curtain on the unknown (a bit like when the studio demanded a shot of a leopard in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People) and by bringing several elements — a baseball bat, the little girl Bo’s half-finished glasses of water — together with too neat a click. There’s still a little too much voila! showmanship in Shyamalan; the final ten minutes or so probably weren’t necessary. But, God, is he ever skilled at set-up. And by staying with this small family — and with Graham’s crisis of faith, imported from other movies (more recentlyFrom Dusk Till Dawn) though it is — Shyamalan has once again made a drama that happens to have supernatural dapplings.

Signs has flaws — potentially fatal structural flaws — but they don’t matter to me. What matter are the moments, which snowball into the convincing heft of emotion. I won’t soon forget the manic-depressive dinner, which Graham senses may be the family’s last; the scene both evokes and equals the mashed-potatoes bit in Spielberg’s Close Encounters (Gibson sets a new standard for tormented eating; the moment is both funny and heartbreaking). The movie is about Graham’s telling each of his children how they were born — Bo came out calm and happy, Morgan came out with a bloody struggle. It’s about Joaquin Phoenix’s tone as he relates an embarrassing adolescent story about the first girl he almost kissed. It’s about the look on Gibson’s face when Graham sees his child in the grasp of certain death. Unlike Shyamalan’s previous two big-twist movies, Signs goes out not with a bang, but with a whisper.

Austin Powers in Goldmember

July 26, 2002

Has Austin Powers lost his mojo? On the evidence of Austin Powers in Goldmember, the most self-reflexive and self-congratulatory sequel since Scream 3, it appears he has. What began as a clever, colorful little farce out of nowhere has now metastasized into a major going concern for New Line Cinema, which tasted franchise success with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and apparently never got over it (how disappointed they must be that they can only get three movies out of The Lord of the Rings). I’m with the idea of an Austin Powers series in which Mike Myers can pursue and elaborate on fresh new ideas, but that’s far from the case here; this second sequel is almost entirely a reiteration of the first two.

Everyone is talking about the opening sequence, studded with big stars checking in for instant comedy cred, but it left a bad taste in my mouth; it’s as if the movie were telling us, “See how big we are now! If [big star unnamed to preserve surprise] thinks we’re cool, you should too!” From there, we settle into the by-now-familiar mechanics of an Austin Powers “plot”: eternally randy Austin (Myers) fending off lascivious Japanese twins; Basil Exposition (Michael York) dropping in and depositing plot points; and the tag team of Dr. Evil (Myers) and his clone Mini-Me (Verne Troyer), who once again strive for world domination.

Myers and co-writer Michael McCullers toss in three new elements, all of which sound better on paper than they play onscreen. Too much time is spent on Austin’s hurt feelings towards his superspy dad Nigel Powers (Michael Caine), who never gave Austin much attention; this neatly transforms Austin from an independently funny character to a resentful son trying to compete with his dad, and Caine, clearly eager to cut loose and spoof himself (his Harry Palmer spy movies, after all, were a key inspiration for Myers in creating Austin), just isn’t given the material. The idea of him as Austin’s dad is far better than the execution. And this sort of thing was funnier in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The shagadelic babe this time out is Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyoncé Knowles), a Pam Grier knock-off Austin revisits when travelling back in time to 1975 to locate his kidnapped dad. Beyoncé Knowles has a warmer, fresher presence than the previous two non-actresses (Elizabeth Hurley and Heather Graham) who have filled this slot, but typically she doesn’t get a lot to do except being kicked repeatedly by New Element #3, who really sinks the movie. In latex and outfits that make him look like Ben Gazzara playing a gay track coach, Myers bravely tackles the role of “Goldmember,” a Dutch mastermind in cahoots with Dr. Evil. This character is so laughless, conceived in such puerile terms, that he almost makes the laboriously grotesque Fat Bastard (yes, he’s back, too) look like a charming, witty creation. If the franchise is getting too big for its bell-bottoms, maybe Myers is, too: At this point there may be nobody around him with enough clout to talk him out of a bad idea like Goldmember.

I laughed a few times, mostly at playful bits like white subtitles against partially white backgrounds, or a sight gag that suggests an unprintable kink (someone at the MPAA must like Myers — the past two Austin Powers films have fluttered dangerously close to the flame of a kid-prohibitive R rating). But most of it is rehash, and smug rehash at that. By the time a well-known (and overexposed) TV family familiar from the past year makes its rote appearance, you know this one’s not for the time capsule (half the jokes will be incomprehensible in twenty years); it’s for a big opening weekend in 2002. Austin Powers in Goldmember congratulates you for being in the Austin Powers fan club, and congratulates itself for having such a big fan club. Mike Myers needs to have another humbling flop (like, say, Wayne’s World 2), so that he can go back to the woodshed, cogitate and write for four years, and emerge with something out of left field — which is exactly how the first Austin Powers came about. Unfortunately, Goldmember won’t be that flop.

Dagon

July 23, 2002

51AK53733VL._SL160_Spanish fish people worship a big fish god. Ah, that wacky Lovecraft (by way of that wacky Stuart Gordon).

Fangoria calls this “Gordon’s best film since Re-Animator.” True?

Not to these eyes. Of the four Lovecraft-influenced films to emerge from the team of Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and/or Brian Yuzna — the instant classic Re-Animator, the fun but flawed From Beyond, the mainly unpleasant and dull Castle Freak, and this one — I’d place Dagon third, behind From Beyond (which is simply more fun to watch). Going outside Lovecraft, I’d judge Gordon’s 1991 The Pit and the Pendulum a better film than anything he’s done since his debut.

So you’re saying this is a disappointment?

Not really; just that it lacks the party atmosphere of Gordon’s first two Lovecraftian entries. When Gordon gets around to making horror films these days, he plays for keeps. The freewheeling Gordon of Re-Animator is gone, replaced by a director adept at suspense but not as interested in comedy any more (though Dagon has its bits of humor, chiefly verbal).

Is this faithful to Lovecraft’s story?

Ha. Are Gordon’s adaptations ever? (For comparison, check out Howard Phillip’s original, very short tale.) As usual, Gordon and Paoli take a basic Lovecraft idea or premise and run with it. This never fails to piss off Lovecraft die-hards, by the way. To which I say: awww, poor widdle babies; deal with it; it’s a movie.

So what’s the Dennis Paoli story (as opposed to the Lovecraft story)?

Rich stock analyst Ezra Godden and his Spanish girlfriend Raquel Meroño (along with two other vacationers, who aren’t around long) are stranded in the village of Imboca (a Lovecraft nod — Innsmouth, get it?), where the locals have their own unique ideas concerning religion and procreation.

Procreation?

Yeah, Dagon — the eponymous monster worshipped as a god — is partial to having human females sacrificed to it so that it can reproduce.

Oh, ick.

Indeed. The movie, I must say, is also plenty gruesome — much more so than I thought would’ve been condoned in an R-rated movie. Arms are torn from a body; a still-living (though not for long) victim has his face peeled off with the help of fish-boning knives. Perhaps the MPAA figured this was going straight to video anyway, so who cares how gross it is?

So did you like it?

Yeah. I prefer the anything-goes Gordon of Re-Animator, but there’s nothing wrong with a well-done, atmospheric, spooky chiller, especially coming from a director far less frequently heard from than he deserves to be. Besides, this is probably about as close to Gordon’s legendary unmade Lovecraft project Shadow Over Innsmouth as we’re likely to get.

It’s a horror movie that doesn’t involve knife-wielding Michael Myers ripoffs stalking ironic, pop-culturally-aware teenagers, and it spirals down to a surprisingly dark denouement (surprising these days, when plots with any hint of sending the audience out bummed have all the originality test-surveyed out of them) — I say we horror fans should get behind it. 4

Eight Legged Freaks

July 17, 2002

There’s always room for a movie about giant mutant spiders. Personally, I don’t think there have been nearly enough of them lately, so it’s good that Eight Legged Freaks fills the gap. There is, of course, a definite place for confusing foreign films and sensitive indie dramas about troubled young lesbians at a boarding school — I enjoy those also — but sometimes you just want to watch a spider eat a fucking car, y’know? The movie is as dumb as dog hair — what am I saying, of course it’s dumb, it’s about giant mutant spiders — but the dumber this kind of movie is, the better I like it. This isn’t a film for those who shuddered at the morose beauty of Road to Perdition. This is a film for those who grew up on monster movies, especially the big monsters that stomped towns and cities flat. I love all those movies, so I say, bring on the giant mutant spiders.

Among modern monster movies, Eight Legged Freaks lacks the simplicity of Tremors, the tension of the better dino sequences in Jurassic Park, and the gung-ho spirit of Starship Troopers. But it’ll do. I didn’t enjoy the hell out of it, as I did the above three, but once the spiders — including jumper spiders, trapdoor spiders, and tarantulas — start crawling all over the ironically named Prosperity, Arizona, it stays reasonably amusing. It isn’t particularly scary; the creepiest thing on the screen is the uncredited Tom Noonan (Manhunter) as a weirdo who keeps a large “spider farm” and feeds his pets contaminated bugs that make them huge (why don’t the infected spiders turn into nerdy high-school photographers? Ah, never mind).

As usual, nerdy little kid Mike (Scott Terra, looking like an American Harry Potter) is the only one who knows what’s going on; as usual, nobody believes him, especially not his busy divorced mom Sam (Kari Wuhrer), the town sheriff, or his disdainful older sister Ashley (Scarlett Johansson, a long way from Ghost World). One sympathetic ear is Chris (David Arquette, abandoning his usual goofball shtick for something closer to his surly turn in Roadracers), who left town ten years ago and has come home looking for work. He finds only his chain-smoking aunt (Eileen Ryan), a bunch of people squabbling over his late dad’s mines, and big spiders.

ELF feels a little padded out even to reach its scrawny 99-minute weight. We spend a bit too much time on the greedy local fatcat (Leon Rippy, wearing a ponytail — that’s how you know he’s bad, I guess) who’s trying to get everyone to sell out their interests in town; there’s a few too many scenes that are meant to be funny (the people who make this sort of film should realize we know how dumb it is — they really don’t need to keep reminding us that they know, too). I got tired fairly quickly of listening to Doug E. Doug as a conspiracy-theorist DJ (“You believe in aliens,” says Arquette to the skeptical-of-giant-spiders DJ in one of the film’s rare funny lines, “but this you have a problem with”).

When the spiders skitter into view, though, all is forgiven. Spiders leaping to take down speeding dirt-bikers, spiders coating a fuel truck, spiders popping out of hiding places to slurp up unsuspecting household pets — I could watch this stuff all day. A few moments shook a hearty laugh out of me, including a bit of business with a mounted deer head and a witty sight gag involving a tent. Best of all are the less competent spiders — the ones who get squished by cars, squeaking in outrage, or get stunned and shake their heads before proceeding to the next victim. The spider stuff is expertly done, and since that’s what we go to Eight Legged Freaks to see, I can’t really hold its faults against it. The movie could’ve been funnier and not played so clownishly during the non-spider scenes, but this is still the best giant-spider movie I’ve seen in quite some time.

Road to Perdition

July 12, 2002

Road to Perdition seems to have been positioned as the anti-Spider-Man — the based-on-a-comic-book movie that doesn’t feel like a comic book. The original 1998 graphic novel, written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, read like a breezy, exciting movie (Loren D. Estleman commented that the book was “the best movie I’ve seen in years”). But what works in a comic book doesn’t always work on the screen; just because a comic book combines words and images doesn’t make it tailor-made for Hollywood. Free advice for future producers who flip through a comic and see dollar signs: Comics like Ghost World, which on the face of it did not look like movie material, often make the best movies.

So we arrive at the movie version, a case of derivation twice removed — Collins’ book was an acknowledged tribute to the Japanese comic Lone Wolf and Cub. In other words, we have a movie based on a comic based on another comic. It’s no wonder, then, that Road to Perdition is one of the most beautifully crafted films that ever made me come close to falling asleep. The director, Sam Mendes, is the latest gifted filmmaker (his debut was American Beauty) to be a deer caught in the headlights of post-Oscar expectation. Mendes and screenwriter David Self have taken vital, pulpy material and made it pictorial and dull. This story badly needed someone like John Woo, who would’ve spiced it up and made the most of its themes of family, honor, duality, betrayal. Instead it got Mendes, who approaches the story hat in hand, as if it spoke bottomless truths about the human condition.

We’re in Depression-era Illinois, where the amiable old criminal John Rooney (Paul Newman) reigns over his corner of the Capone empire. As in so many stories of this stripe, the old man has a genetic son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a useless hothead, and a like-a-son-to-me, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), his main assassin. (In the book, Sullivan’s name precedes him; people fear him wherever he goes, and he’s nicknamed the Angel of Death. The movie hardly addresses that at all, and leaves out his nickname.) Sullivan has two sons of his own, one of whom, his namesake Michael (Tyler Hoechlin), sneaks into his dad’s car one night and goes along for the ride to find out what he does for a living. Michael finds out, all right; he witnesses a gangland massacre, setting in motion a chain of events that lead to the death of his mother and little brother. The two Michaels hit the road, stopping every so often so that the grim-faced Sullivan (never a bubbly personality to begin with) can pursue vengeance.

It might be possible to go along with Road to Perdition as an iconic mood piece. Conrad L. Hall’s burnished, dark, rain-drenched photography is immaculate, and the film moves with a heavy elegance. But eventually the heaviness sinks the story. There are really no people in Road to Perdition – only archetypes of good or evil — and therefore no performances possible. Hanks, for instance, seems so submerged in tough-guy laconic mannerism he looks drugged half the time. Even the usually vibrant Jude Law, cast (and uglified) as a despicable shutterbug/hit-man, is given nothing to play except the surface that Mendes so attentively photographs. Jennifer Jason Leigh is around briefly (and is wasted) as Sullivan’s doomed wife, but other than her, no women are allowed to taint the elaborate masculine anguish. The movie is full of musing about fathers and sons: fathers who are bad men but good fathers; sons who are disappointments, and sons who shouldn’t want to be like their fathers — this all may mean a lot to men afflicted with macho sentimentality, but female moviegoers may yawn through a lot of Road to Perdition.

Eventually the movie folds up into complete pictorialism. Two key murders — the ones we want to see, the ones this entire creaking revenge melodrama is pointing toward — are secondary to Mendes’ fancy staging; one of them is the first such retribution I can recall that registers visually as an afterthought, as a mirror swings toward the camera and shows us the aftermath. This is self-conscious filmmaking and has nothing to do with the basic needs of the story. Mendes doesn’t even include Collins’ juicy exchange between Sullivan and the murderer of his wife: Connor snarls “I’ll see you in hell,” and Sullivan says, “Hell will be heaven if I can spend eternity making you pay for what you did to her.” There’s pulpy poetry in that; for all its glory of image, this Road to Perdition lacks not only poetry but the unpretentious conviction of pulp.

Men in Black II

July 3, 2002

In Men in Black II — directed, like the first one, by the once-promising Barry Sonnenfeld — the hard-bitten Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and the eager rookie Agent J (Will Smith) have switched places. K, having been “neuralyzed” at the end of the first film to erase his memories of the MIB program, is brought back into the fray by J, who now has five years of experience under his belt. Jones’ bafflement — he’s been working in a Cape Cod post office — plays nicely against Smith’s quiet eye-rolls of exasperation. When K gets deneuralyzed, though, the dynamic goes back to that of the 1997 original. So does everything else.

Apart from one unaccountably daffy scene involving a village of tiny aliens who have been living in K’s abandoned locker and worshipping his wristwatch, MIIB (as the ads have it) is about the most uninspired rehash of a popular hit I’ve ever seen. On the principle that the only thing the original lacked was a babelicious villain, Sonnenfeld and writers Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro order up a vicious alien, Serleena, who wants to find some bracelet and conquer the world; and in the person of Lara Flynn Boyle, she looks so gaunt that when the movie stoops to a barfing joke (Serleena devours a male attacker, then notices her sudden tummy bulge and vomits him back up) it comes off like an anorexia joke in the worst taste.

It’s undeniably fun to see Tommy Lee Jones as an amiable, harmless postal worker named Kevin Brown pre-deneuralyzation. As usual, he sneaks dry volumes of wit into his crisp monotone. He’s doing this in the same what-the-hell, pass-the-paycheck mood in which he did Batman Forever. Will Smith, on the other hand, seems to be coming down with Eddie Murphy disease. He may feel he’s beyond the honking little aliens now, and maybe he is — in the five years since MIB, he’s been nominated for an Oscar. But oddly, this one-time comedian doesn’t give himself to the goofiness the way Jones — who spent most of his career being as serious as cancer — can. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a touch of sullenness in Smith’s work here: “Y’all didn’t come out for Ali — you only like me in shit like this.”

The sullenness could extend to Smith’s director. Has Barry Sonnenfeld lost his mind? Certainly he no longer has any grasp of humor or even rudimentary entertainment. There’s one decent moment of simple slapstick when Smith fumbles his way down a pile of inflatable tubes — the comically static staging recalls his bit in the original with the table scraping loudly across the floor. But for the most part Sonnenfeld just points his camera at non-existent CGI beasts to be added later. Bringing back Tony Shalhoub as a shady alien dealer doesn’t help; neither does recruiting Johnny Knoxville as a never-funny two-headed alien in cahoots with Serleena. More than once, the neuralyzed K is said to be “in neutral”; so is Sonnenfeld. Why is he doing these movies? Wild Wild West, Big Trouble, now this — he doesn’t bring anything to them except exhaustion and desperation.

And perhaps greed. Everyone involved in MIIB knows it’s a surefire July 4 hit; it will own its weekend and make everyone bankable again. It may seem naïve to point that out; but this sequel, more than any other in recent memory (you’d probably have to go back to Beverly Hills Cop III for an equally soulless, cynical and laughless “comedy” sequel), seems only in it for the money. (Hell, even the embarrassing Attack of the Clones at least emerged from George Lucas’ highly specific vision, inane as that vision often is.) We get the same gross-outs, the same bellowing monsters, the same chattering little worms, the same heads exploding in sticky guck. MIIB seems to want to neuralyze the audience: it wants the original movie’s fans to remember that film enough to remember that they liked it and want more, but it wants them to forget it enough so that they don’t realize they’re not getting more. They’re not even getting the-same-only-different; they’re getting the-same-only-more-same.


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