Archive for April 2004

Mean Girls

April 30, 2004

Teenage girls can be red in tooth and claw, in case you hadn’t gotten the pop-culture memo. Films like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen and books like Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes have thrown a harsh light on teen girls’ yearning for acceptance and struggles with self-esteem; Tina Fey, head writer on Saturday Night Live, read Wiseman’s book, and Fey’s resulting screenplay was so inspired by Queen Bees that Wiseman gets a screen credit. Mean Girls, which opened with surprisingly big numbers, may tap into the same zeitgeist that seeks to decode the unhappy daughters of a new generation. It’s also considerably witty, with freshly conceived characters and a baroquely structured plot.

Lindsay Lohan, whose popularity may be part of the reason for Mean Girls‘ success, is Cady Heron, a homeschooled girl attending a public school for the first time. Cady doesn’t know the social rules of high school, though her new friends, outcast “art freaks” Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), waste no time filling her in. Tina Fey, who is Class of 1988 like me, must’ve been as relieved — and as dispirited — as I was to learn that high-school cliques haven’t changed much in fifteen years. The Queen Bee clique, derisively known as The Plastics, are a trio of well-appointed brats — airhead Karen (Amanda Seyfried), eager-to-please Gretchen (Lacey Chabert), and ringleader Regina (Rachel McAdams). They take notice of Cady, and Regina invites her into the fold, with Janis’ enthusiastic approval — Cady is in the perfect covert-op position to report back to Janis on the Plastics’ vapidity.

Mean Girls is not just for teenage girls. For one thing, Fey and producer Lorne Michaels have brought along some fellow SNL talent — Tim Meadows as the grouchy school principal, Ana Gasteyer as Cady’s anthropologist mom (her line “Why are my tribal vases under the sink?” is one of Fey’s finer moments as a writer), and the incomparable Amy Poehler as Regina’s mom, a teenage daughter’s worst nightmare — the mom who wants to be one of the girls. This is perhaps the smartest film Michaels has had his name on; Cady is a math whiz, and the movie doesn’t shy away from showing actual examples of her knowledge. Fey wants girls to know it’s okay to be smart, and the subplot in which Cady dumbs herself down to win the affection of a hunky senior (Jonathan Bennett) is a good instance of Fey’s unstressed message.

Elsewhere, particularly towards the finish, the script gets a little preachier. Fey herself, in the role of Cady’s calculus teacher, stands in front of an auditorium full of girls and makes a speech: “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it all right for guys to call you that.” An inarguable sentiment, but it veers too close to a PSA for me, as does Cady’s later revelation, “Calling somebody else fat will not make you any thinner. Calling somebody stupid will not make you any smarter.” These points have already pretty much been made; the Plastics are supercilious and unappealing (though the actresses play them wittily), and Cady herself devolves under their tutelage. As Nietzsche said (or maybe not), “Battle not with Plastics, lest ye become one.”

Except for head Plastic Regina, and an oafish Health Ed teacher who somehow feels qualified to lecture about chlamydia while misspelling it, all the characters are generously drawn; there’s a lovely moment when Janis, of uncertain sexual preference, and Damien, whom Janis has described as “almost too gay to function,” go to the prom together in matching suits. Mean Girls manages to be light-hearted without being light-headed; as noted above, it has a little too much on its agenda, but that’s better than having nothing on its mind at all. And it announces the arrival of Tina Fey into the ranks of smart screenwriters (she’s a pretty good comic actress, too — she has a wonderfully tart exchange with Lindsay Lohan over the contents of a secret “Burn Book” that trashes everyone in school). The movie’s success should pave the way for future Fey projects, and in this dumb, retrograde time for movies, Fey is more than welcome — she’s needed.

13 Going on 30

April 23, 2004

Jennifer Garner, for all I know, may have demonstrated a deft comic touch in her many guises on the popular spy show Alias (haven’t seen it, wouldn’t know). In movies, she has typically been employed as the hottie-in-residence; her biggest prior role was the athletic assassin Elektra in Daredevil. But in 13 Going on 30, her first starring vehicle, Garner comes into her own as a spirited light comedienne. The story is essentially a distaff Big, with a few alterations, but it’s a friendly, giggly movie, closer in tone to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and the other ’80s-flavored comedies of the late ’90s. I saw girls leaving the screening who weren’t even born yet when “Love Is a Battlefield,” one of the film’s central nostalgia trips, was big. Made me feel old.

Garner’s character, Jenna, feels old, too. In 1987, her teenage self (played by Shana Dowdeswell), in the midst of a hellish thirteenth birthday, wishes she were thirty (she’s seen a magazine article declaring that thirtysomethings have more fun). Sprinkled with some magic “wishing dust,” Jenna wakes up in 2004, in an adult body, and in the bed she sometimes shares with a hockey player. It’s as if Jenna is transported seventeen years into the future, without any knowledge of how she came to be there — how’d she get to be a magazine editor, for instance? Since Jenna is thirty on the outside and thirteen on the inside, her situation has many levels of disorientation. After some fumbling, though, she deals with it.

Those of us who were actually there will note that the film’s ’80s soundtrack is a bit out of sync: In 1987, both “Love Is a Battlefield” and Jenna’s other big number, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” were so five years ago, and when Jenna’s best friend Matt plays a Talking Heads tune and no one recognizes it, you wonder where they’ve been — it’s “Burning Down the House,” man. Still, the scene in which grown-up Jenna livens a dull party by requesting “Thriller,” happily leading a bunch of thirtysomethings in the goofily iconic zombie dance, ranks right up there with Cameron Diaz’s bubbly white-girl moves to “Baby Got Back” in the first Charlie’s Angels. A radiant woman looking like she’s having the time of her life makes up for a lot of inconsistencies in both soundtrack and narrative.

Jenna runs into the grown Matt (Mark Ruffalo), now a photographer, and for a while the movie goes a little soft. The script brings up the issue of how Jenna had been behaving up until her teen self claimed her body, and the picture isn’t pretty; we also learn that she was cruel to Matt back in ’87, and that they haven’t spoken in years. Mark Ruffalo knows he’s the standard-issue Nonthreatening Male here (he probably agreed to it to avoid being typecast as the Threatening Male after In the Cut), but his Matt comes at the romance sideways, crablike, suspicious of Jenna’s motives after all this time but warming to her slowly, and Garner, playing off his reticence, gets to enact teenage yearning quite becomingly.

The scenes at Jenna’s magazine office (with a de-Gollumized Andy Serkis in fine harried form as her editor-in-chief) fall just this side of persuasive; I’m not convinced, as the script apparently is, that Jenna’s aw-shucks concept for the magazine’s redesign would go over so huge with her supervisors, nor that a rival mag would find it hot enough to steal. But 13 Going on 30 isn’t about that, anyway; it’s about a thirty-year-old bouncing on a bed to Pat Benatar and confiding to a group of thirteen-year-olds about boys, or eating ice cream and happily sharing it with a dog in the park, or going to visit Matt on his wedding day and weeping as she holds the gift he gave her on her thirteenth birthday. Mainly, it’s about Jennifer Garner redesigning herself for romantic comedy, for which, I now know, she has a natural affinity.

Kill Bill Vol. 2

April 16, 2004

Now that all four hours and eight minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga have unfurled, it’s easy to see the bridge between the two halves. If Vol. 1 was about action, Vol. 2 is about consequences. Having indulged in an orgasmic display of sword carnage near the end of the first part, Tarantino knows he can’t top himself, and he doesn’t try; he slows his pace considerably, drawing out lengthy dialogue sequences, which are really more like duelling monologues. The people in this film feel the need to defend themselves verbally as well as physically; when an enemy is down and helpless, that’s the best time for a declamatory speech at his or her expense.

I realize that makes Vol. 2 sound leaden, but nothing could be further from the truth. As always in Tarantino’s work, character bubbles up from the streams of words. When our wrathful heroine the Bride (Uma Thurman) finally tracks down her nemesis Bill (David Carradine), he favors her with a sprawling theory about superheroes and their secret identities. It’s pure Quentin, but it also tells us about Bill and his esteem for the Bride. Bill’s ne’er-do-well brother Budd (Michael Madsen) gets the drop on the Bride at one point and prolongs her agony with his own chatter, and later on another assassin, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), will do the same to him. The defining Tarantino moment concerns the victim who isn’t just killed but is forced to listen, like the unfortunate cop in Reservoir Dogs or the doomed Brett in Pulp Fiction.

Both wit and dread gather around these long exchanges, with sadism and violence never far from the surface. Should Tarantino ever want to make an all-out horror movie, he proves himself capable in a near-unbearable sequence, played mostly in pitch black, in which the Bride is buried alive; for what seems like an eternity, all we get from the darkness is the Bride’s terrified gasping and the thunder of dirt being dumped onto her coffin. A close-quarters fight between the Bride and Elle is tremendously vicious, the polar opposite of the elegant spatial harmony of the face-off between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii in the first installment. Though Vol. 2‘s body count is of necessity smaller than that of its predecessor, the brutality hurts more here, and counts for more.

We get a peek at the Bride’s earlier life with Bill, her mentor and lover; we see her training under “the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei” (Gordon Liu), an ancient Chinese master with flowing white hair, beard, and eyebrows. (This character, like Vol. 1‘s swordmaker Hattori Hanzo, is cheerfully stolen from existing Asian cinema.) David Carradine ambles into the film, carrying a flute and years of associations with martial arts and B-movies. Tarantino obviously worships him, and Carradine rewards him with a portrait of a callous man driven to destroy the one person who broke through his armor. What Carradine brings to Bill, which isn’t necessarily scripted, is a becalmed sense of honor. We look at Bill and, despite what he’s done, we never think “evil”; he’s something else, something larger and harder to pin down, like Hannibal Lecter.

Uma Thurman’s performance, too, acquires shadings in this second half. The Bride’s pregnancy, her grief and rage at losing her baby, cease to be exploitation plot points and become the basis for a person. There’s an interesting little anecdote in which the Bride, having just taken the home pregnancy test, has a run-in with a female assassin, and what follows is just weird enough to be plausible. Mercy is possible here, if not redemption; murderers remain murderers, and even when Budd or Elle express pangs of regret, it doesn’t mean they’re not who they are. What separates the Bride from the rest of the pack of killers? Well, she chose to nurture life over death. The point is less political than mythical: it’s the priestess of violence learning that her body can create as well as destroy. In total, the Kill Bill movies expand the story far beyond grindhouse-cinema homage. Vol. 1 was energetic fun, but Vol. 2, in its digressions and philosophizing, actually has the payoff.

The Girl Next Door (2004)

April 9, 2004

I knew within the first half hour of The Girl Next Door just how fake it was going to be. Matthew (Emile Hirsch), a conscientious high-school senior angling for a scholarship to Georgetown, falls in love with Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), a comely young woman who’s housesitting next door. One of Matthew’s A-V geek friends (Chris Marquette, who resembles a very young John Cusack and steals all his scenes) shows Matthew an interesting video: Danielle, his dream girl, in a porno tape. Danielle disrobes in the porno, her back turned chastely to the camera, and I had to stifle a laugh. If you’re going to make a movie about a porn star, you don’t get an actress who stipulates no nudity.

The Girl Next Door is a shameless copy of Risky Business, that Reagan-era male fantasy that scored some satirical points on the ethics (or lack thereof) of the day. Such a film today, in a time when Donald Trump has a hit show on which he fires people, would be extra relevant. But The Girl Next Door has no particular relevance to anything. Instead of Tom Cruise’s wannabe-shark, we have sweet little Matthew, who’s so virtuous he wants to be a politician, and the movie doesn’t even have the wit to make fun of this junior glad-hander with a porn star on his arm. Danielle wants to get out of the porn business, and all she needs is a Nice Boy to love her for who she Really Is.

But who is she? This movie written and directed by guys hasn’t the faintest idea or curiosity about what’s in Danielle’s blonde head. Elisha Cuthbert, who resembles five or six different women depending on the angle (Naomi Watts here, a suggestion of Kelly McGillis there), may or may not be a capable actress (I’ve seen her briefly in Old School and haven’t caught her on 24), but she hardly has the material here to prove herself as anything other than eye candy. As conceived, Danielle is a gleaming fantasy chick — she barely even gets her hair wet when she jumps in a pool. Who was Danielle before porno? Why did she get into it? What would she like to do once she leaves the business? You will find the answers to none of these; the only character whose future rates concern is Matthew.

For a while, when Matthew and his geek friends swim among the porn-world barracudas at an adult-movie get-together, The Girl Next Door seems primed to comment on the universe of which Danielle was once a part. It’s just an excuse for scantily-clad women prancing about (as is an earlier visit to a strip club), though Timothy Olyphant and James Remar turn up as rival porn producers. Olyphant, coiffed and stubbled to look like Johnny Knoxville, exudes a seedy frat-boy menace, while Remar, as a swankier producer with a parrot who sits guard over his phallic porn-industry award, has aged with class and brings some adult suavity to this adolescent comedy.

It’s saying something when a movie’s only brushes with reality come in the form of worst-case-scenario daydreams (of which there’s probably one too many). The Girl Next Door clearly disapproves of the porn world, but at the same time it uses porn stars as a deus ex machina to get Matthew some quick cash, and it uses Elisha Cuthbert as a come-on in the, well, porny ad campaign. (The way she’s posed on the poster, with her glazed open-mouthed expression, is redolent of the box covers of higher-rent porn tapes.) Towards the end, I was thinking the movie might’ve been more interesting if it had been a porn film. At least it would’ve been made by people with some insight into the adult-film milieu, as opposed to people with insight into nothing.

Hellboy

April 2, 2004

ron-perlman-as-hellboy-in-hellboy-2004Ron Perlman has made a career out of projecting humanity through latex — the closest he’s come to mainstream stardom was his starring role on TV’s Beauty and the Beast — and Hellboy could almost be his doctoral thesis. Carrying a $66 million fantasy-adventure, Perlman, at age 53, strides in like a hungry young actor itching to prove something, only with 22 years of experience lending him charisma and confidence. It’s a star-making performance, full of surly wit and understated pathos, and should qualify him for high-profile roles without make-up (I still remember with pleasure his unadorned work in 1995’s The Last Supper).

Aside from Perlman, Hellboy is a fun if rather cluttered affair. As directed by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a bottomless bowl of eye candy, but you know what they say about too much candy. Del Toro, a genuinely gifted filmmaker, has shown us two faces: In his native Mexico, he crafts subtle and original horror dramas (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone); in Hollywood, he has a little too much fun with the pricey toys (Blade II and the abortive Mimic, which its studio Miramax diddled with). Hellboy falls somewhere in between — it has moments of inspiration, and you can feel del Toro’s glee at working on a large-scale comic-book canvas. Still, I prefer del Toro’s smaller works; it’s the difference between a nice tray of sushi and a tub of popcorn — both suit a particular mood, but del Toro prepares sushi too well to settle for popping popcorn.

Hellboy (Perlman) is a demon, brought here through an interdimensional portal during World War II and raised by paranormal expert Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt); he works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, sniffing out otherworldly nasties and eliminating them. The idea, by way of Mike Mignola’s comic book of the same name, smacks of a zillion movies (and comics), and the movie’s plot — Hellboy and various other BPRD recruits pursue the still-living Rasputin (Karel Roden) and his cohorts, who want to hand the world over to Lovecraftian evil gods — is essentially unsurprising. The film unavoidably becomes a string of set pieces wherein Hellboy faces off against some many-tentacled monster or another, and there’s much pulp-movie posturing (the bad guys aren’t just occult villains, they’re Nazis) and special-effects wizardry that might feel more magical if we didn’t suspect the art had peaked with the Lord of the Rings series.

Del Toro also tries to make room for a love story between Hellboy (who, deep down, is a big softy — he loves kittens, for instance, and seems to keep dozens of them in his quarters) and a pyrokinetic loner named Liz (Selma Blair, taking on the difficult task of playing a woman who’s drugged out of most emotion for the bulk of the movie). A sequence in which Liz goes out for coffee with a BPRD newbie (Rupert Evans), while a jealous Hellboy hops from roof to roof following them, feels both necessary and unnecessary: It certainly doesn’t move the plot (or what passes for it) forward, but it shows us a different side of Hellboy, particularly when he sits and listens, not especially patiently, to the advice of a nine-year-old boy on the subject of unrequited love.

Bits like that made me wish the whole movie could’ve been about Hellboy and Liz, and how their relationship might (or might not) work. Del Toro achieves a formidable lyricism towards the end, when the demon (who is fireproof) and the fiery woman join in a kiss, enveloped by pulsing blue flame. Most of Hellboy, though, is preoccupied with the stuff that too many fanboy dreams are made of — bashing and explosions and spooky-nasty zombie Nazis with blades that cut through stone. Guillermo del Toro can do this stuff with more ease than many Hollywood hacks, but at some level it’s still hackwork — a Saturday-matinee escapist cruddiness compromises its power as a visionary fantasy. Del Toro may be one of those directors who work better on lower budgets: Hellboy at best is entertaining, but del Toro has been, and can be, more than a studio-financed magician pulling expensive rabbits out of expensive hats.


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