Archive for November 2004

Alexander

November 24, 2004

“Men of Macedonia,” says the great conqueror Alexander (Colin Farrell) to his exhausted troops in the final half hour of Alexander, “we’re going home.” His men respond with loud cheering and much throwing of petals, and if the movie audience had some petals, they might throw some too: You mean this is almost over? Ending a five-year silence from the once-electrifying director Oliver Stone, Alexander is a large, confused and confusing, and sprawling mess — sometimes a glorious mess, but the few shining moments and images seem hardly worth the almost-three-hour investment. Here, Stone has crafted nothing so much as a densely allusive, emotionally unreadable hymn to his own potency and feelings of martyrdom, a trait that has bedevilled his work in the last decade.

Stone seems almost arrogantly disinterested in the actual Alexander the Great, whose extraordinary story has fuelled countless books (including Mary Renault’s acclaimed trilogy of novels) and even an anime series (Reign: The Conqueror, whose trippy-futuristic handling of the legend is probably truer to the source than all of Alexander). After a perfunctory first half hour, in which we’re introduced to Alexander as the textbook result of a dysfunctional family — his father is the oafish King Philip (Val Kilmer), his mother the snake-fondling Olympias (Angelina Jolie) — we skip past Alexander’s early campaigns and pick him up in Persia, with no dramatization of his brilliant strategies or his way of compelling thousands of men to ride behind him towards almost certain death. We see him name-check a few soldiers before battle, and we’re supposed to think, “Cool, he knows their names. They don’t make imperialists like they used to.”

When the hero of a long epic has his big-dog moment — here, it’s when Alexander, on horseback, faces down an elephant in the battle of India — and you feel more of a swell of pride in the horse than in the hero, that epic is in serious trouble. Colin Farrell tries hard, but it’s probably an unplayable role even if well-written, which it isn’t; the dialogue (what little you can make out over the muddled, overactive sound mix) is your standard sword-and-sandal pomp. Farrell is the classic cocky little Irish guy, perfect in something like Phone Booth, but all wrong for a colossus like Alexander. What’s more, the script never lets Farrell gain emotional purchase on any of the people — his lover Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson) — Alexander is supposed to hold most dear. We’re meant to believe in the great love between Alexander and Hephaistion, but all I could tell was that (A) Hephaistion once beat Alexander at wrestling and (B) they have matching eyeliner.

Stone does make good use of sets and costumes, when we can see them; the two major battles in the film are shot in the same herky-jerky, extreme-close-up style as the football head-slams in Stone’s Any Given Sunday. (“All I can see is sand and horses’ knees!” my companion exclaimed.) Angelina Jolie, thankfully, plays her scenes as femme-fatale camp and creates intermittent pockets of interest. Her sly performance in this mostly leaden affair made me wish she and Stone would work together on something that would challenge them both — maybe Medea, which gets dutifully referenced here.

In Alexander, though, Oliver Stone is deeply into deifying the Great White Male, as he was in his previous historical shambles (though more enjoyable and not nearly as long), The Doors. I don’t think Stone has turned into a Bush supporter overnight, but what are we to make of a movie in which the well-meaning (or so he says) conqueror bends nations of swarthy-skinned opponents to his will, under the rationalization of bringing them higher civilization? Stone touches lightly on that; he reveres Alexander more as a man, a risk-taker, a straddler of worlds. But this oracular piece of hero-worship is perhaps the squarest film yet from this once-hip director. Stone may elevate men who take risks, but Stone the risk-taker — the one who seemed so ferociously purposeful, so heedless of political blowback, in such polarizing works as JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon — now seems as dead as Alexandria.

National Treasure

November 19, 2004

Nicolas Cage makes being a geek look cool. When he plays a brainiac, as he does in the retro, whistle-clean adventure National Treasure, he gets us caught up in the almost sensual pleasures of knowledge. Midway through the movie, Cage’s character, Benjamin Franklin Gates, stands holding the Declaration of Independence — the movie’s MacGuffin, which has an invisible map on its back — in Independence Hall; close to tears of awe, he says, “This is the first time this has been in this room since it was signed.” Moments like that, I think, are why Cage took the role; passion is his main currency, and Ben Gates is an impassioned, albeit discredited, student of history, as driven towards preservation as his other Ben (in Leaving Las Vegas) was bent on self-destruction.

Restlessly directed by Jon Turteltaub, who showed no particular flair for adventure filmmaking in his wet Phenomenon and Instinct, the movie goes like a rocket, from one ornate clue to the next; National Treasure is more a detective story than a two-fisted adventure like the Indiana Jones movies. The vast treasure promised by a family document has haunted Ben’s life, much to the dismay of his hard-headed dad (Jon Voight), who thinks the treasure’s a myth. Regardless, Ben has managed to convince some people, including his computer-nerd helper Riley (a scene-stealing Justin Bartha) and a shady character, Ian Howe, who funds Ben’s missions; Ian is played by Sean Bean, who specializes in duplicity, so we know he’s bad news the second we lay eyes on him. Ben isn’t so fortunate, not having seen GoldenEye or Ronin.

The movie becomes a merrily absurd hunt in which Ben tries to keep the Declaration of Independence safe from Ian’s band of thieves; to do this, Ben has to steal it himself. Before that, though, he slouches from office to office — FBI, Homeland Security — trying to tell everyone that the historical document is going to be stolen; no one believes him, not even Diane Kruger as a curator at the National Archives, who gets drawn into the adventure against her will during the Declaration’s theft-for-its-own-good. Those who hoot at the implausibilities in National Treasure are barking up the wrong tree, and may be forgetting how flatly unbelievable some of the situations in the Indy films were. Nobody wanted to spoil the fun then, so why should we now?

I called the movie “whistle-clean,” and it’s decidedly family-friendly; the backstory on National Treasure is that it was going to be distributed by Disney’s Touchstone wing, which handles PG-13 and R-rated films, until it was submitted to the ratings board and came back with a rare PG. That explains why the film is going out under the time-honored Walt Disney banner, and in truth, it’s about as wholesome as any of the studio’s live-action flicks decades ago; I’m pretty sure there isn’t even any swearing in the movie, except maybe in German. Nor is there much gunplay, at least none that pierces anything but walls, and there’s a refreshing lack of CGI gimmickry, too. I mention all this because I write about a lot of films that aren’t suitable for all ages, and when one comes along that’s not only safe for Junior and Grandma but also pretty entertaining, I like to point it out, if only to refute the complaint that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Of course, with such inoffensiveness comes a certain lack of edge. The plot of National Treasure could fit snugly inside a Hardy Boys book, and the scenes of clue-hunting (including a fairly nifty pair of specs that enable the wearer to have a Well of Souls-type revelation) should delight boys; I don’t know how well girls will take to the adventure, since Diane Kruger is mostly reduced to running around or dangling from things (Lara Croft she ain’t, nor even Marion Ravenwood). National Treasure, for me, is a fun and smooth throwback, but for boys of a certain age it may gather the nostalgic heft of the Indiana Jones films when those boys grow up. It might even inspire them to crack a book or two, and look up the Founding Fathers, and then the Freemasons, and from there, who knows.

Seed of Chucky

November 12, 2004

Connoisseurs of self-reflexive trash could probably do worse than Seed of Chucky, a gutbucket farce that works better as a lampoon of Hollywood than as a horror movie. This is number five in the Child’s Play series, which began in 1988 with the premise that your kid’s curiously lifelike doll (seemingly patterned on a Cabbage Patch Kid) could be possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. Brad Dourif has been cashing easy checks for the past fourteen years as the voice of Charles Lee Ray, a.k.a. Chucky, the homicidal doll whose third film purportedly inspired two British boys to murder a three-year-old, and whose fourth outing, 1998’s Bride of Chucky, found him fixed up with a gothy doll, Tiffany, inhabited by the spirit of his former girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly).

The result of the dolls’ passion in Bride turns up in Seed of Chucky as a rather forlorn, sharp-toothed doll (voice by Billy Boyd of The Lord of the Rings — the hobbit who isn’t on Lost) with a gender-identity crisis. The spawn, self-named Glen or Glenda depending on his/her mood (in a probable nod to Ed Wood’s anti-masterpiece of the same name), reunites with Chucky and Tiffany, who are quite busy these days in Hollywood, where they’re employed as “actors” in the horror movie Chucky Goes Psycho. The star of this epic is none other than Jennifer Tilly, playing herself as a sarcastic zaftig has-been who’s not above sleeping with a rapper-turned-director (the rapper-turned-actor Redman) for a shot at the role of the Virgin Mary in his upcoming Biblical flick.

Writer-director Don Mancini (who has written all the Chucky films) paints his Hollywood satire in broad, crude strokes, but not everyone would have the wit to cast notorious director John Waters as a sleazy paparazzo — a role Waters probably relished, and it shows, right down to his over-the-top death scene. An early movie-within-the-movie murder is outrageously gory, and I assumed the MPAA went easy on it because it’s “fake” in context. But then make-up wiz Tony Gardner appears as a, well, make-up wiz whose head is graphically, lingeringly divorced from his body, and we also get to see the caliber of Redman’s intestinal fortitude (he’s just eaten a hot dinner, so his innards steam on the floor). As Terry Jones, the director of the gore-drenched, PG-rated Monty Python and the Holy Grail, can tell you, a spoonful of comedy helps the splatter go down.

Seed of Chucky is lowbrow junk with a pulse, stuffed plump with references to its ancestors, from Halloween to Psycho to The Shining. Chucky himself, despite the vocal exertions of the amused-sounding Brad Dourif, is as monotonously nihilistic as usual, a cackling doll-face with an appetite for destruction. The cleverly designed Tiffany is another story; she’s the best thing to happen to this franchise, and with Tilly speaking her lines she’s a demented mix of hell-raising and nurturing. In the flesh, Tilly has fun sending herself up, bemoaning her career choices, taking a couple of shots at Julia Roberts, and winking at fans of what’s likely to be her headstone movie, Bound (there’s a wonderfully crass Gina Gershon joke, too).

Curiously, this fifth installment is the first to be distributed by Rogue Pictures (who earlier gave us Shaun of the Dead), the action-horror wing of Focus Features, which in turn is the artsy division of Universal, who put out the previous Chucky films under its general banner. That accounts for the film’s slick yet scrappily independent tone; if Julia Roberts gets miffed at Universal over the movie’s jokes at her expense, the studio can always pin the blame on its twice-removed distributor. More importantly, an indie horror division with major-studio dollars behind it (Seed of Chucky got a 2,000-screen launch) can risk more while still staying under the radar (the cultural watchdogs are more concerned about insufficiently patriotic films these days than about Child’s Play 5). With new movies by Wes Craven and George Romero in the pipeline, the horror genre is starting to be fun again, and Rogue Pictures can take some of the credit.

Kinsey

November 12, 2004

A big cock started an American revolution. That’s the wry premise of the comedic biopic Kinsey, anyway. In the early ’30s, zoologist and entomologist Alfred C. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) enters his marriage bed a virgin. His new wife, admiring student Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney), is also a virgin, and their first lovemaking is terrifying for him and agonizing for her. They visit a doctor, who gently asks how well-endowed Alfred is. Very well-endowed, it turns out. So the couple find positions in which penetration will be more comfortable for Mac, and they become blissfully sexual, producing three children (though the movie omits their firstborn, who died of diabetes at age four). Kinsey, a rigorous scientist with a bottomless hunger for the sensuous aspects of nature, can’t believe what passes for sex education: it’s moralizing disguised as science, condemning, essentially, any sex act that doesn’t result in children (masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality). He gets an idea: If he can conduct a study of human sexuality the same way he once scrutinized the evolution of the gall wasp, he might really be on to something.

The saddening thing about Kinsey is that it’s no longer as funny as it would have been just a few years ago. The poor, benighted Americans of the early 20th century, who take as gospel ridiculous hand-me-down theories about sex, are meant to be seen as almost another species — a breed of man and woman haplessly misinformed about such topics as the female orgasm and the supposed perils of pleasuring oneself. But there are still Americans, gripped with fear of the stirrings of their own genitals, who stand firm against any exploration of sex, whether in fiction or in fact. Years under an administration that doesn’t believe in stem-cell research or global warming, not to mention reproductive rights or gay marriage, prevent us from seeing the ignorant people in Kinsey as quaint echoes of the past. Alfred Kinsey (who died in 1956) is a figure shrouded in controversy to this day, and the movie, which lionizes him without denying his flawed humanity, may also be a lightning rod. All he ever wanted was to help people understand the act that leads to life, and he’s been smeared as everything from a propagandist to a child molester.

As written and directed by Bill Condon, whose previous film was another superb biopic (Gods and Monsters), Kinsey is a fast-moving mini-epic, spanning decades with no sweat, painting its intellectually blinkered era with deft strokes. Kinsey was bisexual — as the movie has it, he enjoyed a brief affair with one of his male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard) — and Condon, who’s gay himself, may be building a worthwhile career of gay-themed biographies. A large chunk of the film is talking heads, but what the heads are talking about guarantees our interest. Kinsey has a way of luring his interview subjects into a place of safety, where they can speak freely about what they do in their most private moments. It’s a wonder he got so many responses, though I imagine lots of people were dying to talk about this stuff to someone, in the hopes that they’d be told their proclivities were harmless or “normal.” Part of Kinsey’s point, of course, is that because everyone is different, there’s no such thing as normal. There are only harmful or unharmful acts, and harm is debatable.

Kinsey does, to its credit, delve into the subject of polygamy and its potential discontents. Having multiple partners is fun and fine in theory, but in practice, resentment or jealousy or insecurity can come into play, and people get hurt. But it’s not the sex that hurts, it’s the lack of communication and honesty about it. Kinsey also meets his opposite number, of sorts — not a prude (like his preacher father, played to bitter perfection by John Lithgow), but a cheerful libertine (William Sadler) who’s done everything sexual under the sun, including bestiality and sex with children, and brings this data to Kinsey in a spirit of intellectual sharing (and braggadocio, of course). One of Kinsey’s assistants (Chris O’Donnell) leaves the interview in disgust; Kinsey stays, but his disdain is palpable. Here before him is a man who has used sex as a license to please himself at the expense of countless men, women, children, and animals (twenty-two species, he claims). On the other end of the spectrum, towards the end of his life, after his second volume (on female sexuality) has been published and widely attacked, Kinsey sits down with a woman (Lynn Redgrave) who gives him heartfelt thanks for his work. Without it, she might have gone to her grave afraid and ashamed to find her true self as a woman who loves other women.

Liam Neeson may be uniquely suited to playing brusque, masculine historical figures who become saviors almost despite themselves (see his pitch-perfect work in Schindler’s List); he’s been rumored to be playing Lincoln in another upcoming biopic, and that will be something to see. Here, Neeson makes Kinsey something of a dweeb, a bow-tied insect-twiddler who falls sideways into sex research, becoming the unlikely figurehead for the sexual revolution of the ’60s and the subsequent rise in gay pride and feminism. Kinsey debunked Freud’s uncharitable assertion that clitoral orgasm was “immature”; his work led to homosexuality no longer being classified as a mental illness. In the movie, Kinsey is often obsessive, cracking under the considerable stress of his sudden notoriety. Towards the end, faltering from a heart condition, he all but demands that a rich benefactor bankroll his studies. He doesn’t have time for ignorance or for anyone who would question him. Neeson has a knack for playing heroes who can be assholes at times without being any less heroic, and he’s beautifully matched by Laura Linney, who deserved an Oscar just for the kitchen-table scene she plays with Neeson and Sarsgaard. Linney takes Mac far beyond the long-suffering, long-supportive wife role, though it helps that Bill Condon also writes her as a woman with her own intellect and inquisitiveness and wit.

Kinsey is gentler and more sedate than a decades-spanning movie about sexual inquiry would be expected to be; it’s not a debauched epic like Boogie Nights. Sometimes it comes off like a pristine PBS special, only with a few surprising slides of a penis entering a vagina. But emotionally the movie stays its course and gathers weight and meaning. The denouement, in which an elderly Alfred and Mac dawdle in a forest and admire the trees, speaks softly for the importance of laying down roots, which is the movie’s true subject — the reality of love and its unquantifiable subtleties versus the objective study of the act of love. Kinsey did great work, and moved society a lot farther forward a lot faster than some were ready for, and many of the later marches for freedom derived directly from his quest for knowledge. How sad, then, that almost fifty years after his death those freedoms, that knowledge, are still being challenged in some quarters by those who hide behind flags and Bibles.

The Incredibles

November 5, 2004

the-incredibles-pixarThere are moments (and a lot of them) in The Incredibles as giddily exciting as anything since Steven Spielberg retired Indiana Jones. It does what the bloated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow failed to do — it re-animates the thrill, not just the nostalgia, of old-school comic books and pulp adventure, yet also seamlessly joins it to a modern self-awareness. The details alone are miraculous: the way a doorknob or a car-door frame crumples slightly in the grasp of a frustrated superhero (the car door, in a great touch, won’t shut afterward), or the movie’s hilarious mini-lecture on why a cape is an impractical adornment for a superhero costume. The film scores its laughs and adrenaline with nary a cheap trick.

Writer/director Brad Bird, a veteran of The Simpsons, is now batting two for two: His previous animated feature was 1999’s wondrous The Iron Giant, ignored during its theatrical release but passionately embraced on video in the years since. My wariness of Pixar films (the colorful, amusing Finding Nemo is an exception) goes back to the overrated Toy Story, but I dared to hope that Bird’s involvement would override any Disney-ness clinging to the project, and indeed it does. Bird brings a fine eye for the human to his more-than-human characters; even the motivations of the piece’s super-villain, the resentful Syndrome (voice by Jason Lee), are wretchedly understandable.

The first half hour or so tracks the downfall of two superheroes, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), driven into obscurity and enforced mediocrity along with all the other superhumans after society has litigated them off their pedestals. They become Bob and Helen Parr, an insurance-company drone and his stay-at-home wife, raising three kids, two of whom — Violet (author Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) — also have superpowers, which they’ve been cautioned to keep hidden. When Bob is pulled out of retirement by the threat of a huge killer robot, Helen responds as if he were cheating on her. “Is this rubble?” she pointedly asks Bob after his secret night out with fellow retired hero Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), finding a bit of collapsed building on his shirt that’s as incriminating as lipstick on his collar.

In outline, the set-up is a bit like Alan Moore’s postmodern comic book Watchmen, in which faded superheroes, rendered illegal by the government, go into action one last time after one of their number is murdered. The Incredibles is lighter of heart, though, with action sequences — like Dash’s sprint across water to evade a squadron of manned circular saws, or the way Helen manages to get herself stuck in three doors at once — that will go down as classics. The heroes learn to embrace who they are, while the jealous villain envisions a future where no one is exemplary or heroic — in other words, all the same. The movie’s subtle message that diversity should be honored, rather than everyone joining in the same groupthink to promote “healing” or whatever, couldn’t be more timely.

Theaters have been inundated with superhero movies, or knockoffs like The Matrix, for the past fifteen years (the success of 1989’s Batman started it, and the astronomical rise of 2002’s Spider-Man rejuvenated it). Some have been fine (I have a soft spot for the glum first two X-Men films, and I am among the few admirers of 2003’s tortured Hulk); most have been as thin as the pages that spawned them (no pun intended — 1997’s Spawn may have been the worst of the worst). You certainly have every reason to be mightily sick of super-stories, as am I; two of my favorite comic-book-derived movies of recent years, Ghost World and American Splendor, distanced themselves thoroughly from adolescent power fantasies. But ‘The Incredibles’ is something else, a glowing pastiche made not only with love for four-color escapism but with respect for the all-ages audience.


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