Archive for February 2000

Reindeer Games

February 25, 2000

Everyone in Reindeer Games is stupid. They consistently fail to ask simple questions that would clarify everything, and even when a question is asked and answered, they don’t listen. Could the movie have worked as a farcical action noir, where everyone is too focused on the prize — in this case, a casino heist — to pause for a moment of common sense? Perhaps. Reindeer Games badly needed a Steve Buscemi figure, a guy who stands on the sidelines and can’t believe what he’s hearing: “Are you guys nuts? This guy isn’t who he says he is! He just said he isn’t who he says he is! I say we bag this, go home and watch some porno.”

Ben Affleck, likable enough here, is ex-con Rudy Duncan, who has done his five years for grand theft auto and now looks forward to the bus ride back home to his dad, sports on TV, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate. His former cellmate Nick (James Frain), who’s just been stabbed in a cafeteria riot, had been talking a lot about a young woman he’d been swapping letters with, and had hoped to meet upon his release. Rudy spots the woman, Ashley (Charlize Theron), waiting for Nick outside the prison; on a whim, he decides to pass himself off as Nick and hook up with her. From there, things get hairy; we discover, among other things, that Ashley is connected to a scuzzy killer named Gabriel (Gary Sinise), who wants Rudy to help him and his gang infiltrate a snowbound casino.

The complication here is that Nick once worked security at this casino, and that Gabriel, who thinks Rudy is Nick, assumes Rudy has inside info on its layout and security weaknesses. This could have been a tangled-web comedy of errors, in which Rudy’s first big lie to Ashley mushrooms into a cluster of self-preserving fabrications. But Reindeer Games, directed without much fun or spirit by John Frankenheimer, just plods from one implausible scene to the next, producing not amusement but impatience. We’re all too aware that if just one person in the movie used his head, the movie would be over in five minutes; and the longer it goes on, the better that option seems.

Frankenheimer is a wizard; he still stages action cleanly, and there’s a nasty little bit of business involving a whiskey-filled water gun. But those expecting the pure-cinema thrills of Ronin (never mind the intricate mind games of The Manchurian Candidate) are bound to feel as if they’d opened a gaudily wrapped Christmas present and found a pair of socks inside. (As to why this yuletide-themed thriller — with its gun-toting Santas, ironic use of holiday tunes, and hero named Rudy — is being released in February, your guess is better than mine.)

The busy, undistinguished script (which does have its moments, like a brief scene of hard-bitten henchman Danny Trejo solemnly discussing why there should be two Christmases a year) comes courtesy of Ehren Kruger, fresh from the equally lackluster Scream 3. Kruger showed promise with last year’s Arlington Road, a skillful thriller with a lollapalooza ending, but his produced work since then has been full of empty plot twists that invalidate whatever preceded them. The climax of Reindeer Games has a few too many “Yes, you fool, this is what was really happening” speeches. Kruger pulls the rug out from under you just for its own sake.

The casino scenes are brightened by Dennis Farina, seen too briefly as the casino owner; this former cop always carries authentic toughness to the screen — his eyes tell you he’s seen it all — and he makes the movie look like the callow pulp it is. In a movie like Ronin, full of iconic figures with real weight (Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgaard, etc.), Farina would have fit right in; here, he seems like the only adult in a playpen full of boys with guns. Frankenheimer was right to cast him, but he should have rewritten the script accordingly. Just a movie about Farina’s character, a bitter guy stuck managing a midwestern casino and yearning to go back to Vegas, would be more entertaining than anything in ‘Reindeer Games.’

Wonder Boys

February 22, 2000

x83pqnn.640x360.0Michael Douglas’ performance in Wonder Boys is being talked about as a stretch, but it’s the kind of stretch you indulge in after a good night’s sleep. Usually coiled, tense, and angry (I once wrote that he “has always seemed the least relaxed of actors”), Douglas lets himself go to pot — literally — as Grady Tripp, English professor, respected author of one novel and frustrated writer of its belated follow-up. Grady shuffles through his days, a fiftyish man both tired of his rut and too comfortable in it to do much about it; he finds a kind gesture for almost everyone except himself.

Grady meanders along, more or less amiably, and the movie follows his lead. Wonder Boys was adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel by screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), who understands baby-boomer melancholy but doesn’t make the mistake of treating it too seriously; at times, Grady is like a big kid, lost inside baggy clothes and smoking weed on his porch. Director Curtis Hanson, whose last film was the hair-trigger epic L.A. Confidential, seems to relax and breathe in Grady’s academic world; having shown his aptitude at two very different character studies, Hanson should never go back to formulaic thrillers like The River Wild and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. It’s as if he’d discovered the pleasures of people.

These people, indeed, are made realistic enough that even the most absurd situations don’t push the movie overboard. Grady takes an interest in a talented young writer in his class, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a morbid kid with a natural, spontaneous gift for making things up. James respects Grady but doesn’t idolize him or want to be him — he’s not your usual clichéd protege. James, who can rattle off celebrity suicides in alphabetical order, is also of uncertain sexuality; he’s more interested in Grady’s omnisexual editor Terry (Robert Downey Jr., blossoming in this easygoing atmosphere) than in Grady’s other star student (Katie Holmes).

Wonder Boys has a pleasant improvisatory feel — it’s as if Grady and James were collaborating on the story we’re watching. Hanson finds just the right tone for each scene, whether a bitter exchange between Grady and his pregnant lover Sara (Frances McDormand) or a touch of slapstick involving a blind dog. Though it’s ostensibly set in Pittsburgh, I read it as a New England movie in essence, with its constant rain and snow and fatalism. The movie is also generous-hearted towards everyone, even Sara’s dippy, DiMaggio-obsessed husband (Richard Thomas). When Terry visits Grady, accompanied by an extremely tall crossdresser, some of the audience inevitably titters, but Grady treats the crossdresser with as much casual respect as he does anyone else, and they have a nice, useful chat later in the movie.

I suppose the simplistic way to view Douglas’ switcheroo here is that in past movies, he has specialized in showing us the loser — the amoral, lustful weakling — inside the winner; here, he does the opposite. He allows Grady a certain sad, rumpled dignity without bending over backwards to make him noble. Those who find Douglas an arrogant actor may simply be responding to a great actor who has played arrogant men effectively. There’s no arrogance in Grady, and none in the movie, either. Wonder Boys even makes room for a character Grady “creates” — a man he spots across a bar and idly fictionalizes — who comes back to haunt him, but then turns out to be a decent man who accidentally drives Grady to his final epiphany. This outwardly gloomy movie is as gentle and pleasant a film as we’re likely to get from a major studio this year.

Boiler Room

February 18, 2000


Should a movie be slammed for being derivative if it wears its influences on its sleeve — if it even goes so far as to cite its influences within its own scenes and dialogue? It depends. Swingers, for instance, struck me as a shallow film importing quotes from Reservoir Dogs and GoodFellas simply so that we’d recognize them and feel hip. Boiler Room is another story. The barking young stockbrokers in Boiler Room, an energizing and confident debut by writer-director Ben Younger, have seen Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the film version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. They didn’t get the message of those movies, though; all they took away was the romance of greed, the giddy avarice of the decade of conspicuous consumption.

Our young hero here is Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), who ditched college after a year and runs a thriving backroom casino out of his apartment. One night, an old friend (Jamie Kennedy) comes to Seth’s casino with an acquaintance: Greg (Nicky Katt), a brooding stockbroker for a small firm on Long Island. Seduced by the promise of quick money, and looking for a way to win the approval of his hard-nosed father (Ron Rifkin), Seth easily buys into the firm’s spiel. Soon enough, he’s on the phone getting investors to buy into it, too.

Boiler Room is a skillful and convincing rise-and-fall story. When Seth is hired as a trainee broker and sits in the hectic office learning the ropes, we’re fascinated the way we always are: I admire movies that pause and tell me exactly how things work. There are scenes in which Seth rattles off paragraphs of insider gibberish over the phone; sometimes it sounds like abstract white-boy hip-hop, while other times you surprise yourself by actually understanding what he’s saying, based on the bits and pieces of inside info you’ve picked up.

Ben Younger has an easy way with dialogue, both in and out of the office. The macho pissing contests are inspired by Mamet, of course, but they have a uniquely late-’90s spin: Younger nails the comedy of rich white guys talking like gang-bangers, calling each other “nigga” and “bitch.” The scenes between Seth and Abbie (Nia Long), a secretary at the firm, have an intelligent intimacy; the people in this movie (except when lying on the phone for their living) communicate with a sharp directness — Younger packs a lot into a few words. Best of all, perhaps, are Ben Affleck’s handful of scenes as the firm’s recruiter; Younger obviously had fun rewriting Alec Baldwin’s classic speech in Glengarry, and Affleck, locking in on each sentence like a tailgunner, takes such pleasure in the homage that only a grouch could really object to it as a swipe. (Part of the joke is that Affleck’s character knows it’s a swipe, as does everyone else in the room.)

As he proved in Saving Private Ryan and subUrbia, Giovanni Ribisi is an interesting, low-key presence; you never catch him acting, or trying too hard for our approval. That’s why the subplot involving his distant dad, with its facile attendant psychobabble about Seth’s childhood bike accident, is a bit of a bummer. Ribisi doesn’t seem the type to care what his dad or anyone else thinks, and in at least one scene, when Seth falls apart in front of his father, the actor falters. Despite Ron Rifkin’s crisp, entertaining performance as the father, I would’ve liked to see more scenes between Seth and Abbie, or between Seth and his two competing father figures at the firm, Greg and Chris (Vin Diesel), who squabble over his loyalty.

In the end, of course, Seth sees the error of his ways; the movie pauses every so often to put a human face on those on the other end of Seth’s manipulations, and we feel a twinge of shame because we’ve been enjoying Seth’s games and scams. There’s one classic scene in which Seth, by now an experienced hustler, bullies a telemarketer into making a better sales pitch to him. That’s the real triumph of Boiler Room: It catches us taking pleasure in these scams that destroy lives, then shows us the human cost — yet still doesn’t deny that when these guys are hot and on a roll, they’re riding a high better than anything else they’ve experienced. Money is almost just a perk: it’s really about the flamboyant theater of closing the deal.

Pitch Black

February 18, 2000

pitchblack2000dualaudioIf you ever wondered what it might feel like to be inside a spaceship cracking apart during a violent crash landing, Pitch Black gives you the experience bright and early. The camera jiggles around spasmodically, the actors shout unintelligible gibberish at each other, the sound hammers us. Unfortunately, this describes too much of the rest of the movie, too, without a crash landing as an excuse. Pitch Black is yet another insecure hissy fit of a movie — a thriller without enough confidence in itself or its characters to calm down for two seconds and let the actors speak to each other like human beings.

Movies like this copy the who-goes-there thrills of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing without those films’ grubby, everyday, human-scaled group dynamics. Here, the spaceship in question is carrying a motley crew mostly headed for someplace called “New Mecca”; in addition to the expected Muslims (led by Keith David, of The Thing), there’s a geologist, an antiques collector, a morphine-addicted cop, a teenage boy who’s not what he seems, and a serial killer. This all smacks of gimmickry — these aren’t people, they’re conflict units. In Alien and The Thing, the people confined together were allowed personalities which could then flare up.

The only people in Pitch Black with anything resembling a personality are the serial killer, Riddick (Vin Diesel), and the ship’s pilot, Fry (Radha Mitchell), whose soft features juxtapose nicely with her tough nature. Mostly, the people wander around on the parched, godforsaken rock they’ve landed on, squabbling over how to escape, while gradually being picked off by slithering monsters who thrive on darkness. Of course, this planet has three suns and thus no darkness, but wouldn’t you just know a total eclipse happens to be approaching?

Pitch Black does have an imaginative look. Whenever the characters step outside into the alien air, cinematographer David Eggby (Mad Max) bleaches out everything, which makes sense: These are alien suns whose light is passing through an alien atmosphere, so of course things will look different. And I liked how Riddick, whose eyes have been doctored to allow him to see in the dark, emerges as the unlikely hero who alone can see the ravenous monsters. The Riddick’s-eye view of the beasts is a neat touch of psychedelia.

Problem is, you may wish you could see through Riddick’s eyes all the time. Pitch Black, like so many other horror movies in recent years, is too often so dimly lit that you can’t tell what’s going on. Yes, the latter half unfolds during an eclipse, but a film can be dark and still be visible (perfect example: Carpenter’s Halloween). The expensive, computer-generated creatures lurk around in the dark, revealed to us only in teasing flashes — perhaps for the best, considering that what we do see looks heavily indebted to H.R. Giger’s Alien/Species designs. And the editing, as usual, is far too jangled; if you don’t like a shot, wait two seconds and it’ll change.

I always chuckle at these movies, because the characters are just food delivery; you wonder what the creatures would do for sustenance without the occasional crash landing. (Here, they cannibalize each other too.) How about an alien movie where human flesh turns out to be poisonous to aliens? Then the conflict would be about who in the group should sacrifice himself so that the aliens could eat him, get poisoned, and die. The movie would be short, but at least it’d be different.

The Beach

February 11, 2000

Every year, Hollywood breaks out a fable explaining why nature would be, like, really cool if it weren’t for us darn humans running around spoiling everything. (Which may be true, but what business does a multi-million-dollar, resource-hogging movie have preaching to us about being kind to Mother Earth?) Last year brought the insipid Instinct, with its gutsy stance that we should leave the nice gorillas alone and not slaughter them; the year before that, The Thin Red Line, in which men went to war with parrots, tall grass, and their own florid voice-overs.

At least we’re getting this year’s model out of the way early. The Beach, a mad assemblage of earlier, better bungle-in-the-jungle stories (Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now, etc.), is well-crafted drivel — certainly easier to sit through than the abovementioned eco-dramas. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) does all he can do to keep the screen alive and humming, and in purely cinematic terms — the assaultive shotgun wedding of image and sound, the lush scenery bumping against relentless techno music — the movie isn’t bad; some of it is even compelling.

It’s the spine beneath the style that weakens and cracks. The consensus is that The Beach, adapted for the screen by Boyle’s regular scripter John Hodge, parts ways considerably with the theme and emphasis of Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel; not having read the book, I’ll take everyone’s word for it and assume Garland’s Beach is purer than Boyle’s, which would not be hard. The corruption may begin with the casting of überhunk Leonardo DiCaprio, who once seemed such a risky actor, as the story’s hero Richard, who seeks paradise and thinks he’s found it on a remote island near Thailand. DiCaprio seems to be out to prove he can do mainstream action-movie shit. His defining moment here comes during a sprightly sequence in which Boyle turns him into a video-game character; it’s Run Leo Run.

Richard is tipped off to the island by a crazed visionary named Daffy (an underused, barely comprehensible Robert Carlyle), who leaves Richard a tattered map. Richard and a young French couple, Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), swim to the island and swiftly settle in after a misadventure with local marijuana farmers. A society has been set up in the jungle; its ideology boils down to “Keep everyone else out.” People get sick or die because they can’t leave the paradise, which is ruled with a quiet iron hand by Sal (Tilda Swinton), a potentially interesting character as ill-defined as everyone else in the movie.

The Beach sketches in a love triangle — Richard and Françoise cozy up to each other — only to abandon it; the movie pretends to have bigger fish to fry (sometimes literally; we get to see Leo vs. a baby shark). Richard eventually sees that this idyllic society is as ruthless and violent — as red in tooth and claw — as the jostling city world he fled; the only major difference is more sand and less asphalt. For a while, the movie toys with alienation as Richard holes up alone on the outskirts of the village, staring across the water at newcomers who haven’t swum over yet. Bad things are in store for the newbies. Richard witnesses brutal death on the island, and he has a startling revelation: the movie’s almost over, and he should really head back to the village in time for a big dramatic climax.

Who knows what the movie is saying about civilization and nature? Perhaps that when more than two people get together, disaster is inevitable. There’s nowhere, not even paradise, that you can go to escape the greed and callousness of mankind. Here and there, Danny Boyle appears to be working subversively: Richard isn’t really a hero — he’s either passive or running away. But what is he running away from? He doesn’t seem that unhappy in an urban setting, and the lurid scenes in downtown Bangkok are unavoidably more exciting than the picture-postcard island, where people mostly get stoned; when they’re feeling particularly robust, they assemble for some volleyball on the beach, while a villager is left to die of a shark bite miles away. These people don’t deserve paradise; neither do any of us, I suppose. The Beach is a high-toned bummer disguised as a primal hipster drama.

Scream 3

February 4, 2000

Somewhere near the middle of Scream 3, a film nerd is brought in — make that shoehorned in — to explain the guidelines of the final chapters of movie trilogies, such as the Godfather series and the first Star Wars triptych. What he conveniently forgets to mention is that Godfather III and Return of the Jedi were easily the weakest installments in their trilogies. So it is also with Scream 3, a tepid and depressing conclusion (can we really believe that?) to a once-hip and genuinely scary horror series.

The sarcastic young audience for the Scream movies, eager to laugh and shriek and laugh at themselves shrieking, made the first two entries big hits. But Scream 3 offers very little in the way of laughs or scares. The previous two films had fun with the long-dead slasher subgenre, mocking it and resurrecting it at the same time — its postmodern awareness gave the shocks a new vitality. Scream 3 doesn’t have nearly as much fun with its genre or itself. The kids who weren’t around to see the lame slasher films of the early ’80s may now get to see what they missed: Scream 3 is pretty much a straight, cynical, and infinitely unimaginative slasher flick. This franchise has become the cheese it once subverted and transcended.

Neve Campbell returns, phoning in her performance (no pun intended) as Sidney Prescott, the traumatized heroine of the series. Her experiences with the Munch-masked, black-cloaked killer have inspired two hit films, Stab and Stab 2; the third movie is in production, but the actors in it are being killed — in the same order as the murders of the characters they’re playing. The director, Wes Craven, who has helmed all three Scream movies, gets far less mileage out of this life-imitates-script premise than you’d expect; then again, he’s done it before, in New Nightmare, Craven’s farewell to A Nightmare on Elm Street, his other popular horror series. Craven said all he had to say about the weirdness of moviemaking in that film; he’s certainly said all he has to say about knives and blood.

The script, by Ehren Kruger (taking over from former Scream scribe Kevin Williamson), is top-heavy with red herrings and elaborate exposition — yes, we hear even more about Sidney’s mysterious dead mother. The other Scream films were also tricky and convoluted, but I don’t remember them playing like the WB version of Murder, She Wrote, as Scream 3 too often does. Old characters (Courteney Cox Arquette’s reporter Gale Weathers, David Arquette’s goofy Deputy Dewey) and new characters (Parker Posey as a paranoid actress, Scott Foley as a movie director) all have the same function — wandering around in the dark stupidly, waiting for the masked killer to isolate and butcher them. This is particularly inexcusable with the returning characters; don’t they remember they were in the first two films?

Scream 3 is one of the casualties of Columbine: It’s markedly less gory than its predecessors, no doubt because Miramax/Dimension (i.e., Disney) got cold feet in the wake of the national debate about movie violence. Craven stages the stalking and slashing as professionally as always, but this time the thrills feel anemic, as if we were watching a pilot for Scream: The Series, diluted for network TV. If there’s less blood on the screen, there’s even less in the movie’s veins. The tacky, increasingly underattended dead-teenager films of the last couple of years (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, etc.) seemed to spell the doom of the late-’90s slasher boom; Scream 3 may be sounding its death knell. Perhaps one day Scream 3 will be appreciated as Wes Craven’s ultimate subversion of the slasher genre — illustrating how dead the genre is by intentionally making a lame movie — but right now it just feels like the studio’s sorry attempt to make lightning strike a third time. It’s time to hang up the empty mask of the slasher genre; it’s time horror got a new face.