Archive for February 7, 1997

Dante’s Peak

February 7, 1997

DantesPeak-Still2Dante’s Peak is great fun, but for all the wrong reasons. Here is a movie that cries out for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. The best part is that Universal spent $115 million on what they marketed as a scary disaster movie. Afraid not. Once it gets going (and it takes a good hour), Dante’s Peak has more belly-laughs per minute than The Nutty Professor.

The movie begins seriously enough. Intrepid geologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) and his sweetheart are driving away from an erupting volcano. A smoldering chunk of rock slices through the cab roof — thwack! — and the girlfriend will never need a hat again. Cut to four years later. Harry is now a workaholic trying to forget his grief; you can tell because he spends his spare time doing really intense push-ups.

Harry is summoned to investigate a possibly cranky volcano near the thriving town Dante’s Peak, which is declared “the second best place to live in America.” (Why not first-best? Oh, I don’t know — maybe the dormant-volcano thing.) The mayor (Linda Hamilton), a divorcee who seems to have adopted the kids from Jurassic Park, makes goo-goo eyes at Harry while he’s trying to explain that Dante’s Peak may soon become the second best place to find crispy corpses in America.

Volcanology must be tedious work — all that waiting around for the thing to blow — and I admire the integrity of director Roger Donaldson and writer Leslie Bohem, who keep Dante’s Peak defiantly boring for at least an hour. Just when we’re starting to feel like geologists watching rocks erode, the thing finally blows. Boy, does it blow. The volcanic effects, particularly a highway crumbling and cars falling like loose change, do manage to be fairly frightening. But then the movie accidentally takes a sharp detour into comedy, never to return.

Up to this point, Dante’s Peak has been a pale Xerox of Jaws (the town officials don’t want to scare away tourists and investors) and Twister (Harry has a team of volcano-chasers). But this movie, rather bravely I thought, declines to offer a plot motor like “Kill the shark” or “Get the balls into the tornado.” What we get instead is … Grandma and Ruffy the dog. I’ll try to explain. The little kids’ stubborn grandmother (Hamilton’s “ex-mother-in-law”) refuses to believe that the volcano is dangerous. Even when volcanic ash blackens the sky, she won’t leave her mountainside cabin. So our heroes go through Dante’s inferno to rescue this moron and her dog.

I won’t reveal much more; I don’t want to give away all the jokes. But the scene set in a boat in an acid lake is a comic masterpiece, ending in the funniest unintentional sight gag (involving poor Grandma, who apparently refuses to believe that acid is dangerous) I’ve seen in years. Not to mention Harry’s heartfelt, hilarious promise to take the kids deep-sea fishing when all this is over. Dante’s Peak is truly a special movie. I can’t recommend it, but it has my undying affection.

subUrbia

February 7, 1997

500fullRichard Linklater specializes in movies about young people who aren’t going anywhere — Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and his latest, subUrbia. Yet there’s more going on in Linklater’s films than in most overplotted, hyperactive Hollywood movies. Linklater is a great miniaturist: generally, he stakes out a 24-hour period, introduces his characters, and lets them talk, hang out, connect or not connect. Linklater’s work might be summed up by John Lennon’s line that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

subUrbia is Linklater’s first project that he didn’t also write. His collaborator here is the acidic playwright Eric Bogosian (Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll), adapting his own play about a group of college-age slackers who haunt a convenience-store parking lot. With Bogosian on board, the movie carries a more didactic message — and is a bit darker — than Linklater’s fans may be used to. The tension underneath the movie is the friction between Bogosian’s tense urban sensibility and Linklater’s relaxed, generous style. Bogosian forces Linklater to look at kids who won’t escape and grow up to be successful indie filmmakers.

The closest thing subUrbia has to a hero is Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), who lives in a pup tent in his parents’ garage and has vague dreams of being a writer. Jeff’s girlfriend Sooze (Amie Carey) has similarly vague ambitions; she’s the type who wants to say deep things with her performance art and then has to explain to her baffled audience exactly what she’s saying. Sooze wants to go to New York to be brilliant and controversial, while Jeff doesn’t plan on vacating the pup tent any time soon.

Jeff hangs out with two drunks he grew up with: Tim (Nicky Katt), who dropped out of the Air Force and is bitter and sarcastic about everything, and Buff (Steve Zahn), a more cheerful loser who spins around in happy oblivion. The stage (and it does sometimes feel like a stage, despite Linklater’s best efforts) is set for confrontation between these slackers and a local-boy-made-good named Pony (Jayce Bartok), who hit it big as a rock star and is now passing through town with a limo and a hip publicist (the ubiquitous Parker Posey).

Pony, whose physical resemblance to Linklater may or may not be a coincidence, at first comes off like a poseur. But the film doesn’t let the other characters off the hook that easily. As fatuous as Pony sounds (“I’m an observer of life”), at least he got out and did something, as opposed to hanging around and talking about how it’s pointless to do anything because, like, it’s all a big capitalist scam anyway, man.

subUrbia feels too mechanical at times, too symmetrical and ironic in a way that works better on stage. There’s a fake death and a possible real one, and Linklater seems to chafe a bit at the darkening tone; he’s in his comic element when Buff is whooping it up in the limo and swiping lawn leprechauns. Linklater is clearly at ease with Buff; he’s a drunken goofball and a liar, but in his own way he’s more honest than anyone else in the movie.