Archive for May 2004

The Day After Tomorrow

May 28, 2004

The problem with large-scale disaster movies (as opposed to smaller-scale ones like The Poseidon Adventure) is that we’re given a few people to care about, out of presumably millions of lives. If tornadoes are tearing L.A. apart and a gigantic wave is turning New York City into an aquarium, who cares whether some guy rescues his teenage son? We might care if the characters were written with some panache and skill, but The Day After Tomorrow, political posturing notwithstanding, is all about the spectacle. In the long-shot views of destruction (most of which you’ve seen in the trailer), you watch thousands of people die, but you know most of the people you’ve been watching for a few scenes are going to live. A truly chilling apocalyptic film like this would dispense with a heroic narrative altogether and just wreak havoc for two hours, for mass death would be the meaning of the event for most people.

Director Roland Emmerich follows exactly the same recipe that paid off lucratively in Independence Day and less so in Godzilla: one heaping cup of destruction, a teaspoon of character development, half a pound of scenes involving our heroes narrowly avoiding death — sprinkle CGI effects liberally, let cool, serves millions of gullible moviegoers (the studio hopes). We have here, too, a Message: Instead of aliens or Godzilla, this time it’s Mother Nature herself testing our American resolve (we see glimpses of chaos in other nations, but this film’s view is so narrow you’d think America was composed solely of L.A., N.Y.C., and Washington). The British at a remote weather station can only get drunk and await death by freezing; it takes a red-blooded American, in the person of Dennis Quaid, to fight the odds and make it to an iced-over Big Apple in search of his son (Jake Gyllenhaal, a long, sad way from Donnie Darko).

As usual, Emmerich’s direction is sloppy. A perky brainy girl (Emmy Rossum) falls ill due to an infected gash on her leg, and Gyllenhaal (who’s nursing a crush on her) and some friends head out to a Russian ship that has floated into the middle of the city and frozen there. They’re in search of penicillin, which they assume will be available on a Russian ship in a bottle marked “penicillin” in English (and, wonder of wonders, it is!). En route, they run into a pack of nasty timber wolves that have gotten loose from the city zoo; they also got loose from the film’s CGI artists before they could be made remotely realistic-looking (for a second I thought I was watching Van Helsing again). Then we cut away to Quaid or some other business, and when we next see the sick girl, she’s feeling much better. Emmerich doesn’t give us the moment when Gyllenhaal makes it back and the girl gets the penicillin — the very point of this entire outlandish sequence. And don’t even get me started on the hilarity of the scene where a bunch of people outrun a blast of freezing air and close the doors on it. What, does the air see the closed doors and shuffle away, sniffling dejectedly? We’ve just seen that same air stop three helicopters in flight by turning chopper fuel to ice, for Christ’s sake.

One moment in the bloated spectacle pleased me greatly: at the New York Public Library, where Gyllenhaal and some other survivors hole up, two librarians — a fussy dusty stereotyped one and a funky earthy-crunchy type more typical of who librarians are these days — debate whether to toss the works of Nietzsche onto the fire that’s going to be warding off the impending freeze. A literary discussion in a big-budget summer apocaflick? I couldn’t believe my ears; Emmerich must’ve been off taking a piss when that was written and filmed. Elsewhere, the movie’s respect for the written word — and for credible science (yes, we’re ruining the planet, but an overkill movie like this doesn’t help the credibility of actual environmentalists one whit) — is typified by dialogue like “Unpack the snowshoes — we’re walking from here” or the film’s final line, the most unintentionally funny punchline since “Somewhere in heaven there’s an angel with big ears” in The Tall Guy. The librarians should’ve tossed the script onto the fire first.

Shrek 2

May 19, 2004

In 2001, I scolded the original Shrek (which did quite well despite my qualms) for devoting itself more to lampooning fairy tales than to being its own tale. Mighty must be the power I wield over the DreamWorks creative team, because the sequel pretty much leaves fairy tales off its radar. Shrek 2, which I found immeasurably more entertaining than its parent, gets its laughs from character comedy and reserves its few insider digs for Hollywood’s glitz culture. This one isn’t a not-so-covert Jeffrey Katzenberg broadside at Disney — it comes from a purer place, which I can’t believe I’m saying about a megabucks summer sequel.

Here, Shrek (Mike Myers, once again getting his Scot on) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) live happily ever after in the swamp, in blissful muddy squalor, until Fiona’s royal parents (Julie Andrews and John Cleese) beckon her to the kingdom of Far Far Away under the pretense of meeting her betrothed. Actually, they’d like her to get with Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), an oafish, self-smitten “hunk” whose kiss has the power to convert her from ogre to human. With the help of his mother the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders, in the movie’s most pitch-perfect casting), Prince Charming schemes to win Fiona’s hand by any means necessary.

Shrek 2 touches on some real stuff: Shrek is content to be his ogre-ish self with Fiona until her parents’ disapproval enters the picture; she wants him to make an effort to join her family. Who hasn’t had that discussion, green horns or no green horns? The King, voiced by Cleese with an effortless mixture of comic disdain and royal ineptitude, is actually divided in his feelings about Shrek, for reasons we eventually learn, and the Queen receives the subtlest character animation, her features showing delicate flickers of exasperation or compassion (her expression when she first meets Shrek is superb, right up there with Anne Bancroft’s small facial gymnastics in The Elephant Man upon encountering John Merrick).

Eddie Murphy returns as the comically irritating Donkey, and one’s misgivings about a black actor “playing” a dimwitted loudmouth sidekick are quickly overruled by the obvious relish Murphy takes in the role. Donkey, too, acquires shadings of jealousy when Shrek gets a new sidekick — Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas delivering a timely reminder that he can be funny as hell), a feared cat assassin originally hired to do away with Shrek. Puss is deadly with a sword, even more so with the Margaret Keane eyes he deploys on special occasions. He’s the movie’s secret weapon, scoring every time. The team of three writers and three directors have a lighter touch with parody this time out, managing to twit The Lord of the Rings, From Here to Eternity, Frankenstein, Peter Pan, and Spider-Man practically before we’ve even sat down.

Shrek 2 is, dare I say, more hip than the original without particularly trying to be, which I felt was the first movie’s problem: Either you are or you aren’t. That movie had John Lithgow in fine hammy fettle, but this one has songs by Nick Cave and Tom Waits, and unites Brit-humor behemoths Cleese and Saunders for what I believe is the first time. I can forgive the Joan Rivers cameo, and the overbearing cheesiness of the “Livin’ la Vida Loca” finale (so five years ago), and the ubiquity of Shrek’s grinning mug on every food product I’ve seen in the supermarket for the past month. The first Shrek didn’t do proper justice to William Steig’s idiosyncratic book, but this loose-limbed and slyly funny sequel, which has as little to do with Steig as its predecessor did, might have pleased him.

Troy

May 9, 2004

troy4el3Like Gladiator four summers ago, Troy starts the warm-weather season off with a manly, retro, sword-clanging bang. But that’s where the similarity ends. Gladiator, which unaccountably won a Best Picture Oscar, was a numbing and derivative revenge fantasy recast for swords and sandals. Troy takes off from sturdier origins — Homer’s great war poem The Iliad, which seems constructed to show war in all its aspects, its exultant splendor and its terrible cruelty. David Denby, in his appraisal of classic literature Great Books, cites an Iliad passage describing a spear striking a soldier “beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder.” Homer’s treatment of violence is both near-pornographic and exhilarating in its attention to the physical.

Director Wolfgang Petersen is aboard Troy, and after a few hit-and-miss blockbusters (his last movie was the waterlogged The Perfect Storm), he has made his most robust yet complex film since Das Boot, the U-boat drama that launched him internationally. There are many, many grand-scale battle scenes in Troy, and Petersen stages them cleanly yet with an emphasis on the chaos of the moment. We see individual mano-a-mano conflicts within the larger fracas, mini-battles in which we can see that this man triumphs because of speed over strength, while that man wins due to sheer dumb luck. Other fights, such as the one between the Trojan warrior hero Hector (Eric Bana) and a massive Greek adversary, are skillfully choreographed dances of rage and honor.

Brad Pitt may take a few critical slings and arrows just for having been cast as Achilles, the arrogant warrior and great hope of Greece, but he’s got the moves. Pitt has perfected a highly photogenic maneuver: he runs past an enemy, hops up with his heavy legs swinging, and jabs his opponent fatally above the shoulderblade — whap! Pitt brings more to it, though; his Achilles is a great warrior who feels used by the greedy king Agamemnon (Brian Cox, having a grand old time) and has grown contemptuous of the very forces that set him in motion towards glory in battle — which means contempt of glory itself. (In Homer, Achilles renounces the heroic code, saying, “We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.”) By contrast, Hector, as underplayed effectively by Eric Bana, is a strong warrior who would rather not fight — he’s seen enough fighting to appreciate any other sensible but honorable alternative.

This great war poem, amusingly, has a soap-opera impetus: Hector’s brother Paris (Orlando Bloom) runs off with Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson). In the movie, Agamemnon uses his brother’s rage as an excuse to start a war with Troy but really couldn’t care less about Menelaus’ pride. The weak link of The Iliad turns out to be the weak link of Troy, especially since Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger, twin pretty flowers, barely suggest the transgressive passion that incinerated a great city. Nevertheless, the story was always meant to focus on the men pitted against each other over such a trifling matter. The face-off between Achilles and Hector is beautifully realized, all the more wounding because we can precisely read each man’s emotions going into the fight (even though Achilles’ rage is muted in the movie because he is now avenging his cousin, not his, ahem, “friend”).

If mesmerizing panoramas of mass carnage don’t pull you in, Troy has a major old warhorse in its ranks: Peter O’Toole, seldom seen onscreen lately, enters the movie humbly as King Priam, father of Hector and Paris, and commands the screen effortlessly. When Priam meets Helen, O’Toole compliments her beauty, then delivers a single word, “Welcome,” and invests those two syllables with an entire movie’s worth of meaning; you can hear the subtext of Priam’s exasperation with his son, understanding of why Paris fell so hard for Helen, and acceptance of whatever this illicit love might bring to his nation. “He was born to end lives,” someone says of Achilles, and O’Toole was born to kick movies up another notch.

Super Size Me

May 7, 2004

spurlock460In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum’s slowly mutating character monitors the progress of his own decline with a mix of horror and fascination. He might’ve approved of the unscientific experiment conducted by Morgan Spurlock on his own body in Super Size Me. Spurlock, a 33-year-old multimedia whiz, has made an engaging if sometimes sickening documentary about the effects of a month-long diet consisting only of McDonald’s food. He casts his net wider, though, questioning a society that cares so little about the fuel that runs the body that it blindly consumes very bad fuel just because it’s faster and easier. Would we put the equivalent of a Big Mac in our gas tanks if it made our cars run slower and stall routinely?

McDonald’s just so happens to be the biggest dealer in immediate-gratification food, so it takes the biggest darts in Super Size Me, but Spurlock doesn’t stop there. Have you seen what passes for school cafeteria food lately? Spurlock does find one school in Wisconsin that has adopted a healthy lunch program emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and baked meals over fatty, sugary, calorie-ridden items; the school has reported a marked decrease in bad behavior among students, and says that their program is no more expensive than your typical program dependent on frozen, processed food. So why don’t more schools opt for health? Why are recess periods being decreased across the country, and PhysEd classes dwindling to far below the recommended weekly amount of exercise for growing kids? It all boils down to politics and money.

You may find it ridiculous that people are suing McDonald’s for serving fattening food, or for that matter that the famous old lady sued them for serving her a hot cup of coffee (never mind that the coffee was so scalding hot — the average temp being 180 to 190 degrees — it gave her third-degree burns of the groin, inner thighs and buttocks; you don’t hear that part of it much). But it’s time to start questioning what the corporate-owned media nudges you to find either important or ridiculous, and Spurlock does, starting with the McDonald’s claim that a nutritious diet from their menu is possible. Spurlock’s method, granted, is a bit of a stunt. He goes beyond what most people would eat, though he only super-sizes nine out of the presumable 90 meals he gets at McDonald’s (he pledges to super-size only when asked by the counterperson if he wants to). But this formerly trim and healthy man becomes a lab rat for a variety of illnesses, monitored by three doctors and a nutritionist and worried about by his vegan girlfriend. Spurlock turns nutritional awareness into a kind of extreme sport; the change in diet shocks his system so much that he can’t get through the second day without vomiting.

That scene, and another involving gastric bypass surgery shown in leering detail, may put you off your popcorn as well as your fast food. And some of Super Size Me verges on a medical horror film — Spurlock has one of those terrifying middle-of-the-night health scares that reminded me of Goldblum in The Fly sitting in the bathroom and saying “What’s happening to me?” But most of the movie is fun, smooth sailing, like a Michael Moore film without the sarcasm. Spurlock isn’t really out to embarrass McDonald’s (though he wages an unsuccessful Roger & Me-like campaign to score an interview with McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo, who ironically died in April 2004 of a heart attack); when he goes to various McD’s joints asking where their nutrition info is posted, he doesn’t come off as mean-spirited as Moore sometimes does when grilling secretaries. (Super Size Me could be a genial companion piece to Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which meditated on why America is so violent; it’s suggested here that a diet high in fat and sugar can make people more aggressive.)

Super Size Me might just change some minds and lives in a way that a more sober-sided Nightline treatise on fast food couldn’t. At the end of Spurlock’s ordeal, his girlfriend Alex Jamieson already has “Morgan’s Vegan Detox Diet” ready for him; I wish that were on the film’s website, because having seen the film I have little interest in consuming fast food anytime in the near future. The movie isn’t a one-sided diatribe; Spurlock interviews Don Gorske, a healthy-looking guy who set a Guinness record for number of Big Macs eaten during his lifetime — Gorske is like the anti-Spurlock. But not everyone is Don Gorske, and many people in this 60%-obese country will die sooner than they have to because of their diets — whether McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC, too many potato chips, or whatever. Spurlock only wants us to think about that. Preferably before dinner.

Van Helsing

May 7, 2004

The best thing Van Helsing has done for the classic Universal monster movies was to inspire the synergy-chasing studio to re-issue the old Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man DVDs. The worst thing Van Helsing does for those movies is Van Helsing. Despite the negative advance word, I really wanted to love this film; the thought of writer/director Stephen Sommers (who made the two fun, hyperactive Mummy movies) tackling those icons of fear, with legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) at the forefront, sounded at best like a king-hell monster mash and at worst like a so-cheesy-it’s-great warm-weather blowout. It’s neither, unfortunately, despite a promising start.

The Universal logo dims into black-and-white, catches fire, and becomes a torch held by a member of a mob converging on Castle Frankenstein. Okay, you have me at hello. As the sequence goes on, and we learn that Dr. Frankenstein is in cahoots with Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), something troubling may occur to you: This isn’t true black-and-white. Though the film’s expert cinematographer (Allen Daviau) is certainly capable of achieving a ’30s-monster-movie look, the images seem to have been shot in color and then wiped of the color — they’re not lighted for b&w photography. Where are the shadows, the mystery?

Stephen Sommers has assembled a fanboy’s geek dream of a monster team-up — we used to see matches like this in Marvel comics of the ’70s, where Dracula and Werewolf-By-Night had a smackdown — and turned it into a charmless video game. Van Helsing himself, played by Jackman without an ounce of fun or awareness that the movie is ludicrous, is an efficient avatar of carnage, scowling as he sends vampires to Hell. Didn’t Sommers remember that all the previous screen Van Helsings — the list includes Peter Cushing, Laurence Olivier, and Anthony Hopkins — were occasions for delicious overplaying? Sommers and Jackman treat the character as if he were a Shakespearean role played by those actors.

Richard Roxburgh has taken some lumps for his hammy version of Dracula, but he’s the only thing worth watching. Murderously fey, as if given three vampire brides just to prove his heterosexuality, Roxburgh’s Dracula floats around the sets, howling or purring with menace. It’s fitting that Roxburgh performed roughly the same function in Moulin Rouge — understanding how daft the material was and running with it — because Van Helsing is dangerously close to being the Moulin Rouge of monster movies (which I don’t mean as a compliment, for those of you who dug Moulin Rouge). Roxburgh’s scenes with Kevin J. O’Connor as a nasty, ironic Igor point towards the campy comedy this should’ve been.

Instead, we get far too much lashing and bashing — monsters pummeling each other, thrown through concrete walls; human beings (including Kate Beckinsale in her second lame monster film after Underworld) surviving falls and impacts that would kill a grizzly bear. Dracula’s brides hardly have time to be poisonously sexy they’re too busy morphing into winged harpies and swooping through the air, dodging Van Helsing’s bursts of automatic crossbow arrows. Frankenstein’s monster is more or less used like the Hulk or the Thing (Marvel Comics version); Mr. Hyde makes a computer-generated appearance (after this and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I never want to see this character again), and he smashes and bashes, too. A lycanthrope character is similarly, boringly destructive. The problem with Van Helsing isn’t that it’s a dumb monster party compiling Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man; it’s that it isn’t that movie. This is just an overamped action movie in which the legendary monsters are interchangeable with any other brutish CGI beasts. Stephen Sommers may have loved the old Universal monster movies, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have understood them.


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