Archive for December 1998

The Faculty

December 25, 1998

Crap comes in various degrees: The Faculty, for example, is a crappy teen horror movie, but in director Robert Rodriguez’s hands it’s at least agreeably crappy. Rodriguez, who made such a splash in 1992 with his $7,000 debut El Mariachi, now seems to have resigned himself to being a hired gun for Dimension (Miramax’s horror-movie branch), cranking out stuff like From Dusk Till Dawn and this movie. But, as hired guns go, Rodriguez has good aim. Even when the script runs out of ammo, Rodriguez keeps things visually edgy. He may never be more than a stylish B-movie director, but I’ll take his B stuff over failed A-movies like Patch Adams.

Written by Kevin Williamson, the teen avatar of the late ’90s, the movie is an unabashed rip-off of — uh, sorry, homage to — the paranoid subgenre of alien-possession flicks, particularly Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing. (There’s even a rewrite of the blood-test scene in The Thing.) The setting: a grungy Ohio high school, carefully established as chaotic and rowdy at the beginning. That’s so that we’ll be alarmed when the rude, crude teenagers become pod people, marching to their classes in formation. Fine, but the effect is that most of the teens are so obnoxious that pod-personhood seems like a graceful alternative.

The teachers are beginning to act strangely, and some of the most popular students are following suit. As usual, the misfit students form the core of the resistance: wimpy Elijah Wood, surly riot-grrl Clea DuVall, faux-dope dealer Josh Hartnett (his drugs are mostly caffeine, so he’s okay), new kid Laura Harris, and two fallen popular kids, cheerleader Jordana Brewster and head quarterback Shawn Hatosy — they all suspect something weird’s going on, and of course no one will believe them, because if they were credible, the movie would be over quickly.

If, like me, you’re a horror fan, you’ve seen this all before. It’s been done, but has it been done well here? The Faculty is about high-school kids, so there’s a limit on how tacky it can get (no nudity, for instance) — it’s not quite a cheesy guilty pleasure like Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, which was penned by another hip screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. The difference between Tarantino and Kevin Williamson becomes clear with this movie: Tarantino knows the rules and plays with them; Williamson plays by them. The Williamson approach, it’s obvious by now, is to have a few scenes in which your characters comment on the staleness of the plot they’re enacting. Which doesn’t make the plot any fresher.

Except for the always-appealing Elijah Wood and the smartly cynical Clea DuVall, the teen actors don’t register; they succeed or fail to the degree that they sound like they’re actually talking and not rattling off Williamson’s hyperarticulate dialogue. More fun to watch are the possessed teachers, including hipster biology teacher Jon Stewart, roughneck coach Robert Patrick, wallflower-turned-hellcat Famke Janssen, dead-voiced Bebe Neuwirth, and just plain scary Piper Laurie. In their scenes, Rodriguez is in his element; he doesn’t seem to have much interest in the whitebread teenagers, and so we don’t either.

Rodriguez is in his element, too, in the special-effects scenes, when little sluglike parasites are burrowing around in people’s faces or when the big mama alien makes its appearance — the director is like a kid playing with monster toys (he’s usually like a kid playing with action figures). The better parts of The Faculty are when Rodriguez can leave the script in the dust and get both hands bloody.

His work here is playful enough to make The Faculty worth a look, but it’ll leave you with a question more disturbing than anything in the movie: At what point does a talented stylist stop being a director to watch, and start becoming a hack for hire?

A Civil Action

December 25, 1998

In its omnivorous quest to buy the rights to every story that could possibly be turned into a movie, Hollywood often forgets to question whether said story should be a movie. Some material, it so happens, works best on the stage or the page — or even on the tube. But Hollywood is in the moviemaking business, so it naturally assumes the noblest form of entertainment is the major motion picture. A Civil Action — a courtroom drama that tries hard not to be one — is well-cast, well-acted (sometimes brilliantly acted), and tastefully handled by writer-director Steven Zaillian. So why can’t I rise to it? Because the movie does nothing that television can’t do; it’s a high-powered TV movie. Adapting Jonathan Harr’s nonfiction book, Zaillian conscientiously avoids all the clichés we associate with courtroom potboilers. The problem is, he hasn’t found much to replace the clichés. Zaillian wants to make a complex film about law, but perhaps only a TV series, which has many hours to develop characters and moral dilemmas, can pull that off.

Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), when we first meet him, is a proudly cynical ambulance chaser. He knows exactly what he is, and he takes pleasure in being good at it. Then a case arises that challenges his complacency. In Woburn, Massachusetts, twelve children have died of leukemia. Their families, led by grieving mother Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), have been looking for a firm to represent them in a suit against two companies that dumped carcinogenic waste (which seeped into the water). Schlichtmann dismisses the case until he learns that the two companies, W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, have deep pockets. He takes the case, and gradually gets personally involved, spending money on the prosecution to the point where his small firm is in danger of going under.

Schlichtmann is a grandstander; he makes a big show of doing everything he can to win, and I began to wonder whether this story shouldn’t have been about an obsessive lawyer who sinks his own firm and is damn lucky the EPA is around to go after the polluters when he falters. With the engaging John Travolta in the lead, the movie becomes one more David-and-Goliath morality play — didn’t we just see this in the much more entertaining The Rainmaker? — instead of what could have been an acerbic Don Quixote tale, with Schlichtmann tilting at the windmill of his own legal-eagle pride. We’ve even seen the lawyer-and-dead-children story before, in The Sweet Hereafter, a work with more depth than ten movies like this one.

I called A Civil Action a high-powered TV drama, and it is high-powered; the cast is impeccable across the board, particularly William H. Macy as Schlichtmann’s frazzled accountant, John Lithgow as an imperious, bemused judge (pitted against Travolta again, 17 years after Blow Out), and a surprise cameo at the end by a recent Travolta co-star. And when Robert Duvall is on the screen, all is forgiven. He plays Jerome Facher, veteran attorney for Beatrice Foods, a great man who takes the measure of everyone he meets and quietly masters them. Some critics are calling the movie complex, but I think Duvall’s performance is what they mean; his Jerome Facher defends a polluting corporation, yet we like the bastard, because he, too, knows exactly what he is, and accepts it, even enjoys it — enjoys the power, the process, the head games. On a TV series, he might be a major character; here, he’s a supporting player in a few punchy scenes. Duvall makes those scenes count, and that’s what you take with you, chuckling as you recall his sly bits of business. Meanwhile, of course, your thoughts of the twelve dead children fade away.


December 25, 1998

Seeing Hurlyburly the movie is, for most of us, the next best thing to being there — “there” being Chicago, where Hurlyburly the play was introduced in 1984, with a cast including Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver under Mike Nichols’ direction. In this case, however, second best isn’t nearly good enough. In the movie, adapted by David Rabe from his play and directed by Anthony (Zebrahead) Drazan, we get high-octane actors from stage and screen. What we don’t get is a break from Rabe’s relentless hammering. On stage, the characters were at a comfortable remove from the audience; here, Drazan’s camera jams us up against the men as they snarl and snort. What may once have been intimate and voyeuristic is now in-your-face and tiresome.

Hurlyburly is set around Hollywood, among the bottom-feeders of the industry — the agents, the struggling actors, the topless dancers. Daydreams of fame and success have rotted their brains and souls. In truth, though, the story could be set anywhere; it’s just that L.A., as they say, is like everywhere else only more so. Beneath the trappings of Hollywood and the dusting of cocaine lies a moralistic tale about men who don’t know themselves, who abuse women but reserve the worst abuse for their own bodies and brain cells. In plays like this, macho anguish and artfully inarticulate soliloquies rub elbows with the promise of violence. All of which works fine if the playwright is David Mamet; if not, not.

Neurotic Eddie (Sean Penn), detached Mickey (Kevin Spacey), hulking, tormented Phil (Chazz Palminteri), weaselly Artie (Garry Shandling) — these men are all broken, and we watch as they crack apart. Rabe, who also wrote the very speechy Streamers, concocts the sort of keyed-up rants that actors cherish — and that audiences cherish more on the stage than on the screen. Penn might’ve been powerful in the play (he headlined a 1988 revival), but in the movie he’s still playing to the back row. After a while you just monitor his technique; it’s a twisty-faced performance without the subtlety or wit of his best screen work. Spacey, slipping into the role that Walken originated, has his usual deadpan charm, but some of his line readings ring false — they’re so deadpan they’re wooden. Palminteri is fine as a man burning in self-disgust, but could any actor make sense of Phil? The realism of a movie further strains his plausibility, which might have made better sense within the artifice of the stage.

Women, of course, exist in Hurlyburly to be bruised and tossed — literally, in Meg Ryan’s case; she plays a promiscuous erotic dancer whom Phil throws out of her own moving car. Ryan is similarly thrown away in the film; though she plays her part well, she seems like a visiting cutie-pie trying on grungy attitudes for size, and she takes you out of the movie. Anna Paquin is on hand as a teen runaway made up to look like a cross between Alicia Silverstone and Katie Holmes; she doesn’t have the innocence I’ve seen in photos of Cynthia Nixon, who played the role on stage. The most interesting actress, Robin Wright Penn, is handed the least interesting character — Darlene, a cipher who sleeps with Eddie. (Weaver played it on the stage, and probably brought some humor to it.) Here, the Penns strike none of the sparks that they did in She’s So Lovely.

Finally, Hurlyburly is yet another story that didn’t need to be told as a movie. Drazen tries hard to “open out” the play — having long conversations spread out over several locations, on car phones, in the office — and I liked what he did with a scene in which Sean Penn lies under a glass table while other characters talk to him and are reflected on the surface. It’s a deft way to have actors speak face-to-face while showing us both faces — I liked it when Jonathan Demme did it in The Silence of the Lambs, too. But mainly the movie feels too stagebound. Rabe has streamlined the dialogue, sacrificing a lot of funny throwaway lines without lessening the script’s burden on our patience. It takes a real wizard of words — say, Mamet in American Buffalo, or even Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise (which was never a play, always a movie) — to turn an actor’s dream into a movie dream as well.

Blarney: “Patch Adams” and “Waking Ned Devine”

December 25, 1998

Editor’s note: Since Patch Adams has obviously been made for an audience that has never seen a movie before, the following review is our helpful attempt to guide that audience.

First of all, don’t let that big thing in the front of the room scare you! It’s called a “screen,” and that’s what they project the movie onto. Pick a nice, comfy seat, settle in, and prepare to enjoy your first-ever movie, Patch Adams.

The movie stars Robin Williams, an actor you have never seen before, so perhaps some explanation is in order. Williams generally plays two types of roles: Either he’s zany and rude, or he’s zany and lovable. As Patch Adams, a real-life doctor who wants to heal the sick with the power of laughter, Williams falls into the second category. He’s zany! He’s lovable! And, since you have never seen him be zany and lovable before, are you ever in for a treat! He’s zany and lovable nonstop!

At the beginning, Patch is depressed and suicidal — but don’t worry! In movies like this, none of which you’ve seen, despair and pain are easily overcome. All you need is a little companionship and a lot of string music. Speaking of which, this will also be your first exposure to Marc Shaiman’s brand of uplifting, sensitive instrumentals; bring a Kleenex, because you won’t be prepared for how deeply his music will touch you! Pity those of us who have heard this same score fifty times before.

While in a mental institution, Patch decides he wants to become a doctor. He goes to med school, where he runs afoul of the mean old dean! This dean wants Patch to follow the rules and not treat patients like people. Since you have never encountered this type of character before — an easy straw man for our hero to be morally superior to — you can be excused for hating the dean, especially when the script urges you to hiss him every time he’s onscreen. The dean, by the way, is played by Bob Gunton, who essentially played the same role as a prison warden in a great movie you didn’t see, The Shawshank Redemption. Patch also offends his uptight roommate (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in 1998’s best movie you didn’t see, Happiness), but never fear! The roomie eventually comes around!

Yes, Patch wins over everyone he meets, even an angry dying man (Peter Coyote, from that timeless classic you missed, E.T.) and a standoffish fellow student (Monica Potter). Patch falls in love with this student and gradually defrosts her, but don’t get too attached to her! When Patch opens his own clinic, and a creepy, mentally disturbed man checks in …. Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for those of you who have never seen a movie before, and thus won’t be able to see it coming. After this tragedy, Patch is very sad, but don’t worry! He will see the light and realize that he was put here to make people feel better — because if he quits, nobody will make a holiday movie about him.

But wait — the movie’s not over yet! Patch gets in trouble because he doesn’t follow the rules, and the mean old dean wants to make him leave school. So Patch defends himself in a courtroom before a panel of doctors. Now, I know you’ve never seen a courtroom scene before, so I won’t reveal its outcome. And you will certainly not find the manipulation level reaching an all-time high when Patch’s young chemotherapy patients make a surprise appearance, wearing his trademark red nose! Yes, if you’ve never seen a movie before, Patch Adams is the movie for you. It will surprise and fascinate you at every turn, and you won’t leave the theater feeling that you’ve seen it a hundred times before.

When you leave, by the way, just follow the little lights in the aisle, and proceed in an orderly fashion to the exit. Now you can make plans to attend your second movie! My suggestion? Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

tumblr_m3u6963GEp1r1ipqjo1_400Those who have never seen a movie before — or who don’t go to the movies much — might be impressed by Waking Ned Devine, a mild comedy that’s been heralded as if it were the next Full Monty. In a tiny Irish village, someone wins the $6 million lottery; problem is, he’s dead. The movie is about the efforts of two old-timers (Ian Bannen and David Kelly) and their neighbors to put one over on the lottery commission so they can keep the prize. This very small-scale movie, unaccountably shot in widescreen by writer-director Kirk Jones, has one or two off-center moments, but before long it degenerates into a broad farce in which not only the wizened Kelly but the flabby Bannen must ride a motorcycle starkers, and a dislikable crone is disposed of in a way that violates the movie’s gentle tone.

Waking Ned Devine is at least mercifully brief (at 91 minutes), and it tries to get some subplot crosscurrents going, so as to make the village come alive for us as a vital and organic locale. Unfortunately, they just come across as subplots, and largely unresolved ones at that. All that really matters in the movie is money: A fetching single mom has been avoiding a humble but loving farmer because he smells like the pigs he works with, but once he gets rich, he won’t have to smell like pigs any more, so she embraces him. Pardon me if I don’t find this as heartwarming as it’s meant to be. Pardon me also if I find the performances by Bannen and Kelly of the effusive-overgrown-Irish-boys variety, and fairly tiresome.Waking Ned Devine wants to be a high-spirited pint of lager, but it’s pretty thin beer. Watching the film’s supposedly upbeat final shot, when a little boy joins the old-timers in a toast, I couldn’t help thinking, Ah, begorrah, another budding alcoholic.

The Thin Red Line

December 25, 1998

I feel sorry for anyone who sits down to watch The Thin Red Line expecting a star-studded war movie. Yes, it is set in World War II during the Battle of Guadalcanal, and yes, it does boast a formidable roster of actors. But neither of those attributes means much of anything in The Thin Red Line, the first film in twenty years by the legendary, hermitlike director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). Treating James Jones’ novel (which was filmed before in 1964) as a blueprint, Malick has crafted nothing so much as a poetic tribute to his own artistic sensitivity. And believe me, that’s every bit as tedious and pompous as it sounds.

Malick has a spectacular reputation based on two movies from the ’70s, neither of which is exactly a household word today. Yet a platoon of top-flight actors — Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, as well as many up-and-comers or newcomers — chomped at the bit to work with Malick. Why? You got me; Malick is not, to put it mildly, an actor’s director. In The Thin Red Line, the shimmering palm trees, rustling tall grass, and noble wildlife get more attention than the soldiers. We get the point: Man the warrior, man the destroyer, is an outsider in the glory of nature. Only the dreamers and poetic souls among the soldiers (whose thoughts, very unfortunately, we hear as narration) are as one with Nature. This isn’t a war movie or even an anti-war movie; it’s the invasion of the interloper Man into the Garden of Eden.

For a while, you may want to go along with the woozy perversity of this — a war movie crossed with Koyaanisqatsi. But two hours and fifty minutes is a long time to indulge a director’s flights of fancy; at times, the floating hippie-dippiness made me nostalgic for the comparatively clearheaded Saving Private Ryan, which, despite its grandiloquent passages, at least didn’t wander off into the weeds photographing parrots. As if someone had tossed ice water on him, Malick does snap awake and stage a crisp battle halfway through; coiled with tension, a hellish action painting in fiery reds and dark greens, it made me understand, for a fleeting moment, what all those actors and critics see in Malick. But then it’s back to the hushed picture-postcard images and insights like “Maybe we’re all part of one big soul.” Some may see art in this; I see tremendous waste and emptiness.

I enjoyed one other scene in the movie, which I’ll mention to make a larger point about the movie’s failure. Nick Nolte, as a rabid lieutenant-colonel, speaks with respect and affection to subordinate soldier John Cusack. “You’re like a son to me,” Nolte tells Cusack, then, oddly, adds “My son is a bait salesman.” What does that mean? Is it anything so vulgar as a joke? (This movie, by the way, redefines “humorless.”) I enjoyed the actors’ moment — Nolte’s gruff expression of soldierly love; Cusack’s quiet, ambivalent acceptance of it — but we have no idea why Nolte’s character feels this way, no sense of their history together, and in any event, there’s no follow-through. The father-son bond is a popular sentiment in the film: demoted captain Elias Koteas says the same thing to his men, and George Clooney, in his gratuitous cameo at the end, tells the new crop of soldiers that he is their “father.” I’m sure this means a lot to Malick. I’m sure it means zilch to anyone else.

The Thin Red Line begins with images that seem designed to confuse those pitiable viewers who came to see a war movie: Two American soldiers (who, we learn, are AWOL) dance and play and swim with innocent Melanesian natives. Oh, so man is destructive except for these untouched natives? Don’t they also hunt animals and live off nature? The movie gets no better from there; even when it puts on its helmet and goes to war, it’s got flowers in its hair. Malick is known for deleting most of his dialogue in the editing room; judging from the pointy-headed dialogue he kept, I have to wonder, How dumb was the dialogue he threw out?

The burnished visuals, the folksy-eloquent platitudes, the arrogantly abstract characters — all of this might impress the same people who have invested so much, over the last 25 years, in the notion that Terrence Malick is a poet of imagery. (He damn sure isn’t a poet of words.) But I can only conclude that Malick has achieved a film-buff version of mass hypnosis. The Thin Red Line is nothing if not hypnotic, though the trance I entered was closer to nodding off. Maybe all those Malick acolytes are part of the same big soul. They certainly aren’t part of the same big brain.

You’ve Got Mail

December 18, 1998

At the risk of sounding impatient, I have to ask: How many more times are we going to have to watch Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan figure out they’re in love? Don’t they know they’re Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? We got it (even if we didn’t want it) the first time, in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle (which was also directed by Nora Ephron). Hanks and Ryan then moved on to other roles, and yet here they are again in You’ve Got Mail, forced into one contrived situation after another so that they’ll remain apart until the epiphany of the final scene, in which they realize that, yes, they are in a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy directed by Nora Ephron.

I didn’t much care for Sleepless in Seattle, but at least that story had a genuine emotional pull: Hanks, a recent widower sick with love for his dead wife, attracts Ryan, who yearns for that kind of passion in her own life. You’ve Got Mail, by contrast, offers nothing except a plot jerry-rigged to keep Tom and Meg apart — not physically this time, but emotionally. The story has been lifted from the Ernst Lubitsch classic The Shop Around the Corner, in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan didn’t realize that their secret love-letter pen pals were actually each other. Stewart and Sullavan, working together in a Budapest leather shop, had a combative rapport that even in 1940 translated as erotic tension.

Ephron’s updating of this material falls flat. Hanks owns a big bookstore chain that threatens to put Ryan’s tiny children’s-book shop out of business. Why? Perhaps so that Ephron could vent her feelings about big business driving out small business — but in that case, why are we encouraged to sympathize with Hanks’ character? It could turn out to be a bad strategy: I could sense people in the audience getting rigid with disapproval — after all, most of us have seen beloved shops wither and die when a big chain opens nearby. The dialogue circles around the issue every which way, and Hanks’ culpability in putting people out of work is never resolved. The movie simply bites off more than it can chew.

As for the e-mail update of the story: God knows people in real life form emotional attachments based on electronic correspondence, but the word for such attachment isn’t usually “love.” Closer to the truth might be “delusion,” or at least wishful thinking. At best, it can be a good way to make pen pals. But to fall in love with someone based on e-mail? There’s not even a tactile engagement with the person — no letters to save in a special box, no handwriting to examine (does she dot her i’s with circles? do his lines slant upward or downward?). Ephron doesn’t seem aware that love via e-mail is a depressing subject for a movie — one can imagine what Todd Solondz (Happiness) might do with it.

I see that I haven’t talked much about the plot, but there really isn’t one; as I said, it’s just a series of grievances and misunderstandings postponing the inevitable. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that there was a moment when I thought Ephron would surprise us — but she doesn’t. Once a talented essayist, Ephron seems to have lost her taste and intelligence when she began writing for Hollywood. She still directs a movie by shoehorning one oldie after another onto the soundtrack, and she still depends far too much on star power to put her unexceptional dialogue across. (Having characters drop names like Foucault and Heidegger is literary dialogue, not literate dialogue.) There’s literally nothing to say about the performances: Tom does his Tom thing, and Meg does her Meg thing.

Nothing in You’ve Got Mail can touch the heartbreaking moment in The Shop Around the Corner when Margaret Sullavan calls James Stewart “an insignificant clerk” and he looks stricken. There’s a similar scene here when Meg tells Tom off, and he looks stricken too. But all I could think was, She’s got a point.2

The Prince of Egypt

December 18, 1998

The Prince of Egypt may just be worth sitting through to catch the Red Sea sequence — but not necessarily because of the parting of the sea itself, though that’s nicely done. No, what impressed me was the range of emotions flashing across Moses’ face. With the Pharoah’s army approaching, and the Hebrew people looking to him for guidance, Moses turns to the sea, looks to the heavens, and in his eyes we see a flicker of doubt, then a leap of faith, then a becalmed oneness with his God. It’s a great, understated moment, far more subtle than anything Charlton Heston came up with at this crucial stage in Moses’ career.

The moment stands out all the more because the rest of Prince of Egypt is frantic and loud, as if it were afraid to lose you — or as if disproving our suspicions that this Biblical film, the first major cartoon feature by DreamWorks, would be reverent and dead. The movie isn’t irreverent, but it’s too alive: too much jostling and running around, not enough genuine awe. The movie’s rhythm is set early on, when the infant Moses’ floating basket encounters a series of lethal obstacles — it’s like Baby Indiana Jones and the River of Doom. The teen Moses is introduced to us in the middle of a rip-snorting chariot race with his brother Rameses; the horses gallop over rickety bridges and fall over towering sand dunes. Boy, these Egyptian heirs to the throne — they work hard and they play hard.

The story of Moses is the primal story of self-discovery: When faced with the cruelty of the Egyptians towards the Hebrew slaves, Moses feels compassion that he can’t possibly understand. We know why, of course, and part of the appeal of this story is watching Moses peel off his luxurious false self and find the harder road to his true destiny. What’s most disappointing about Prince of Egypt, which clocks in at a mere 99 minutes, is that the journey is telescoped; it seems too fast and unearned, and nothing has any gravity. Some stories need an epic length, so that changes in character come gradually. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments weighs in at three hours and forty minutes, and we get much more of a sense of what Moses is giving up (in Prince of Egypt, for instance, there’s no tempting Nefretiri).

In this telling, Moses and Rameses are two fun-loving young guys, friendly competitors, until Moses becomes the leader of the Hebrews and brings plagues down on Egypt. Where’s the fraternal resentment we remember so well between Moses and Rameses in Ten Commandments? Rameses is the first-born (and also the Pharoah’s only true son), yet the Pharoah loves Moses more no matter how hard Rameses tries — that should be the angle, but Prince of Egypt muffles it. There are no villains here — we’re told that the Egyptian leaders are acting out of the only tradition they know — and this is a hell of a time for DreamWorks to try ambiguity. Are the filmmakers trying to avoid awkward moments for adoptive parents taking their adopted kids to the movie?

Technically, the movie is proficient. I’d put it up against Disney’s recent stuff. But here, DreamWorks is trying too hard to beat Disney at its own game: The tone is textbook Disney, from the comic-relief characters (Steve Martin and Martin Short) to the pastoral images giving way to big musical numbers (which are generally duds). Of the celebrity voices, only Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum (as Moses’ true siblings) really stand out — mainly because they don’t sound like they belong in this setting. The credits tell us that Moses is voiced by Val Kilmer, but it could be anyone. And Moses is drawn as a Disney hero, too — strapping body, eager face-splitting grin, basically Aladdin with a beard. God knows DeMille’s epic wasn’t art, but it was a glorious wedge of Biblical cheese. Given a choice between DeMille’s form of show-biz pomp and Disney’s (copied here by DreamWorks), I prefer DeMille’s. Prince of Egypt is hyperactive and visually busy without being much fun — at least not as much fun as hearing Yul Brynner intone “Zo let it be written, zo let it be done,” or watching Anne Baxter bat her eyes at the mud-stiffened Charlton Heston.

A Simple Plan

December 11, 1998

Simple_plan-paxtonA snowy white wasteland as a background for dark doings, a blank void that suggests a larger moral void: this is becoming something of a trend in thrillers, as witness Fargo, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and now A Simple Plan. It’s a new breed of film noir — call it film blanc. A wintry climate can make a thriller seem more weighty: the characters have to move slower, each step producing a crisp, fatalistic crunch as they waddle through the snow towards their doom. In A Simple Plan, the usually hyperactive director Sam Raimi sustains a mood of unforgiving bleakness — the dark, gnarled trees bowed by snow, the vast white void waiting to gather up human frailties. Unfortunately, a thriller ultimately needs more than mood. Based on a bestseller by Scott Smith (who also wrote the script), A Simple Plan is about three guys who stumble across a major amount of cash and then slowly unravel as they clash over whether to keep it, who gets to hold onto it, what to do with it, and so on. That’s what it’s about; that’s all it’s about. The film is handsomely mounted but awfully familiar: crime does not pay, greed is bad, be sure your sins will find you out, what a tangled web we weave, etc. How many times have we seen this before? How many more times will we have to see it?

Raimi is working at a disadvantage, because he doesn’t have the material that would set this movie apart from a dozen other such thrillers. The three protagonists — brothers Hank (Bill Paxton) and Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) — are presented almost entirely in terms of how much they need the money. Any aspects of their characters that don’t “move the plot forward,” as they say in screenwriting classes, have been left out. Hank’s a decent guy, married (Bridget Fonda plays his wife) and with a baby on the way; Jacob is a dimwitted nerd (does anyone else prefer Billy Bob Thornton when he plays smart people?), and Lou is a grizzly drunk. I wasn’t especially interested in any of them, and the actors seem too tightly reined in; their underplaying echoes Raimi’s conscious underdirecting.

A Simple Plan lacks the local color and eccentricity of a movie like Fargo, which famously paused and gave valuable screen time to that Japanese guy who had nothing whatsoever to do with the story. I don’t want to compare this movie to Fargo too much, but the fact is that film noir can’t be done straight any more; we need all the quirks and distractions a director can toss our way, so that our attention isn’t focused completely on the mechanics of the plot. Raimi, the prankish maestro behind the Evil Dead trilogy, would seem the ideal filmmaker to throw us a few curves, but here his rambunctious instincts seem frozen stiff. So we watch the story unfold and we predict pretty much all of it, including the fate of a major character who has the misfortune to be played by an actor whose name isn’t above the title.

This isn’t a bad movie; Sam Raimi does it well, but why did he do it at all? Maybe, like a comedian who’s made millions laugh, Raimi now craves respectability — he wants to prove he can be serious. But except for a few moments, usually involving violence or its aftermath (there’s a macabre bit involving a corpse that seems to be moving), Raimi can’t do much with this stuff. He’s as locked into the film noir mechanism as the characters are. And there’s something a bit sad and self-deluding about a director trying to go respectable in what’s essentially snowbound pulp. It’s been done before, and Raimi doesn’t do it much differently or put his own stamp on it; he delivers it professionally, somberly, as if it were art-house material deserving of the utmost gravity. There was more art in any five minutes of Evil Dead 2 than in all of A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi doesn’t wear seriousness well; it wears him out.

Star Trek: Insurrection

December 11, 1998

StarTrekInsurrection01_zpsfd3dd198I’m not much given to quoting myself, but leaving Star Trek: Insurrection, I remembered what I’d written in my review of 1994’s Star Trek Generations, the first film featuring the Next Generation crew. “The Trek movies,” I wrote, “are comfortably familiar; you can count on them to be either terrible or better than you expected. It’s no fun when they’re just sort of competent and not-bad.” In the same review, I talked about the Odd Number Curse, which afflicted Generations (the first Next Generation film and the seventh Trek feature) and also taints Insurrection, the third Next Generation outing and the ninth Trek movie. (The Odd Number Curse theory holds that all even-numbered Trek movies are good, while all others disappoint.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel guilty about rehashing myself, since the people behind Insurrection have done essentially the same thing. Here, the crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), find themselves on the horns of a moral dilemma. A civilization of blissed-out immortals named the Ba’ku are threatened by a rival race, the Son’a, who want to benefit from the Ba’ku’s life-giving turf — specifically, by evicting the Ba’ku and claiming their planet. This, of course, makes large veins pop out of Picard’s forehead. More than once, he draws implicit parallels between the Son’a and the Nazis or slave traders — a hefty historical allusion that this movie, which is basically a sci-fi joyride, can’t handle. We know all the agonizing will just lead to the usual zap-zap, good-vs.-evil stuff.

It should be said that Jonathan Frakes, who plays Commander Riker and who directed 1996’s terrific First Contact as well as this one, is a whiz at zap-zap. Give him an action scene to play with, and he goes at it with retro, masculine gusto; he works with a precision and vigor that are particularly satisfying in this era of stubbornly incoherent Hollywood spectacles. Trouble is, this voyage is short on zap-zap and long on furrowed-brow scenes — it feels as if Picard directed it, except for the clownish scenes of the crew members regressing under the rejuvenating powers of the Ba’ku atmosphere; these scenes seem to have been directed by the android Data (Brent Spiner) in his goofy mode from Generations. (There’s much character comedy to tickle the fans; neutral parties, like myself, may find it fairly precious.)

Every Trek movie needs ugly villains, and the Son’a are real lookers, all right; they’re led by Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham), a scowling, rather pissy fellow with Silly Putty features stretched across his skull, like Katherine Helmond in Brazil. The unintentional comedy of Star Trek is that the ugly mega-villains — the Klingons, even the Borg (in the curvaceous person of Seven of Nine) — eventually become Federation-friendly anyway, so why lose sleep over them? Me, I thought there was more going on with the Son’a than with the Ba’ku, who struck me as insufferably pure and noble. “We understand technology,” one bright-eyed Ba’ku announces, “but we choose not to use it because if we let machines do our work, it takes something away from humans.” Well, good for you.

The movie is full of such gassy moralizing, and Picard falls in love with an angelic Ba’ku named Anij (Donna Murphy), as if to say, “Why should Captain Kirk get all the interspecies nookie?” It never occurs to Picard that his feelings may have a little something to do with the fact that lovely Anij will never sag anywhere, have hot flashes, or need to bleach her upper lip. By the end of the movie, the innocent Ba’ku have been defended without having to dirty their hands, there is effortless and highly implausible reconciliation (this movie shares with A Bug’s Life the questionable theory that if you get rid of the evil leader, all his minions will see the light and repent), and the crew of the Enterprise go off to their next adventure.


December 11, 1998

“I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you before,” says a fetching young teacher to Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), the 15-year-old hero of Rushmore. Nor is anyone likely to meet anyone like Max in real life, and very seldom at the movies. As Rushmore begins, Max is a seriously overachieving student at Rushmore Academy, where he compensates for his stereotypically nerdy looks (thick-framed glasses, tinsel teeth) by joining and/or founding just about every organization at school. He devotes himself to writing and directing school plays with the zeal of a young Welles or Spielberg, putting on spectacular shows everyone will talk about for years. Meanwhile, he’s flunking all his classes. He’s a bright kid — some would say ingenious — but grades aren’t important to Max; for him, Rushmore is both his playpen and his canvas. Everything he does is meant to leave the indelible mark of Max Fischer.

Is Max insufferable? Sure, sometimes — and one of the surprises of Rushmore, a sort of cross between Amadeus and The Graduate, is that Max’s outsize ambition is often shown up for the narcissism it is. He’s a kid. He means well, but he also rolls right over everybody’s toes; he’s so focused on achievement he seems monomaniacal at times. Director Wes Anderson, who also wrote the script with Owen Wilson (this is their second film, after 1996’s Bottle Rocket), risks alienating us: Max is obviously brilliant and just as obviously a case of arrested development, a boy who lost his mom at an early age and has thrown himself into distractions ever since. The movie is about what happens when he collides with another case of arrested development — tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray), who befriends this gangly kindred spirit but soon competes with Max for the affections of the aforementioned teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams).

Wes Anderson has a distinctive and unstable style; he likes the sound of different personalities clashing, different moods bumping together. In Bottle Rocket, a trio of suburban goofballs fancied themselves aspiring criminals; the story took the form of a road movie, and just when you thought the plot might tighten and thicken, it got slack and digressive (and vice versa). Rushmore is a much more successful mood-swing comedy, with moments of classic slapstick rubbing elbows with moments of painful candor. As in so many films about boy dreamers of all ages, the woman is the pinprick of reality that pops the balloon of male fantasy. Deflecting Max’s advances, swiftly bored with Herman, Miss Cross is the sanest voice in the movie, yet she, too, has her false ideal; she takes up with a hunky intern (Luke Wilson) for physical comfort but can’t help comparing every man to her late husband, whose memory she just about fetishizes.

Everyone is talking about Bill Murray, as if he’d never given a real performance before. Actually, he’s been building a solid rep as a born-again character actor and supporting player in films like Ed Wood and Wild Things, but it’s fair to say that Herman Blume is his first fully mature role (ironic, given Herman’s lapses of golf-ball-tossing, bicycle-wrecking childishness). The vaguely depressed father of twin sons who have more brawn than brains, Herman sees Max as both the smart son he never had and a younger, not-yet-disillusioned version of himself. Murray’s performance is mostly subdued, with flashes of adolescent contempt popping out like a switchblade (he has a hilarious boozy scene in a hospital elevator); Anderson and Wilson have written him a great role, and he brings it home effortlessly.

This is not to slight Jason Schwartzman, a rookie actor who more than holds his own with Murray, or Olivia Williams, captivating us even at her most brutally honest. Nor should we overlook Wes Anderson’s stylized brand of comedy (his main theme so far seems to be the folly of ambition), his pitch-perfect selection of oldies that heighten each scene, his odd use of widescreen for this small-scale teen movie, as if it were an epic on a par with one of Max’s excessive plays — it’s as if Max wouldn’t settle for anything less than CinemaScope. Rushmore is an ode to creative wunderkinder, who can be immature pains in the ass (just ask anyone who worked with Welles or Spielberg way back in the day); most movies wouldn’t exist without them, but they don’t exist in most movies.5