Archive for May 2000

Shanghai Noon

May 26, 2000

Shanghai-Noon-BD_12I would prefer not to say that Jackie Chan, by the sheer power of his goofy charisma, is able to cut our IQs in half and make us accept cornball, lowball humor. I’d much rather say that he wins us over — invites us to become undiscriminating eight-year-olds for two hours, laughing at whiskered jokes and hooting at elaborate displays of chop-socky. If Chan has a co-star of equal charisma — Michelle Yeoh in Supercop, say, or Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon — so much the better.

Shanghai Noon is perfectly pleasant doofus entertainment. Approaching 50, Jackie Chan still hasn’t lost his taste for slapstick mayhem; he dives into it with the gusto of a man half his age, though perhaps a little more slowly these days. (Gone, it seems, are the days when Chan could vanquish hordes of villains in one amazing, unbroken cut; he’s beginning to rely on editing to help him out.) But Chan can still clown with the best of them, and now that Jim Carrey is starting to dabble in more mature fare, Chan is the last great physical comedian.

He gets a workout in Shanghai Noon, which transplants him from the Forbidden City of China to the Wild West (it’s 1881). Chan plays Chon Wang, a bumbling Imperial Guard who goes to America to find the kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), apparently so named only so that someone can mispronounce it. Chon encounters an equally bumbling train robber, Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), who performs roughly the same function Chris Tucker did in Chan’s 1998 Rush Hour — except that, unlike Tucker, Wilson isn’t actively annoying. Aloof at first, the two men gradually warm to each other, in the time-honored buddy-movie fashion.

The movie walks the line between good stupid humor and embarrassing stupid humor, and usually manages to stay on the good side. Partly, I think, it’s because Shanghai Noon has been made with sincere affection for the Western genre; this isn’t a cold, wannabe hip mess like Wild Wild West. Though allegedly set in 1881, the film hardly tries to be true to how people talked or acted back then, especially in the case of Roy, who is so 20th-century he’s as much a fish-out-of-water as Chon is — Roy may be the only cowboy in movie history who engages in self-defeating inner monologues (“You’re gonna die. He’s gonna kill you”) during a gunfight. Roy owes a lot to Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddles; the movie cribs a lot more than that from Mel Brooks’ groundbreaking spoof, but if you’re in the mood for Shanghai Noon you’re not really in the mood for originality.

It also helps that the movie is as light-hearted as Chan himself. The director, Tom Dey, is a Brown University graduate and TV-commercial veteran (he works for Ridley Scott’s firm) making his feature debut; he distributes the gags at a steady pace, and if one of them isn’t that great, he shrugs and sets up the next one. And he has a fine team in Chan and Wilson, whose acting styles — Chan’s antic slapstick and wounded dignity, Wilson’s laid-back befuddlement and contemporary irony — mesh so well that the characters actually seem to have a history together by the end. This is one summer movie I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to.

One slight disappointment for Chan fans will be the end credits, which traditionally show outtakes of Chan hurting himself when a stunt goes wrong. We enjoy these outtakes not because we like to see Chan in real pain, but because it adds to our appreciation of what he goes through to entertain us. Here, the outtakes mostly amount to Chan blowing his lines, which indicates that he’s not taking as many risks as he used to — that, heaven forbid, he’s actually becoming sensible in his autumn years. Well, if Chan’s looking for a way to pass gracefully into less strenuous movie work, he could do worse than Shanghai Noon, which gives him a serviceable script, a director who stays out of the way, and a bright co-star. I hope Chan remembers that formula during the next decade or so.

Mission: Impossible 2

May 24, 2000

The concept behind the Mission: Impossible movies is enticing: Take a great director, a modern master of technique and thrills, and put him behind the wheel of a big-budget Tom Cruise movie — Brian De Palma directed the first one in 1996, and now John Woo has helmed Mission: Impossible 2. Well, it looks good on paper, anyway. Cruise, the co-producer of these movies as well as the star, seems to lose track of the reason he hired these directors in the first place. In scattered moments you get flashes of the old De Palma or Woo genius — not quite enough to sustain you, but just enough to frustrate you.

Mission: Impossible 2, I’m afraid, is yet another stubbornly incomprehensible spy thriller very much in the James Bond mold. In these movies, which are pointless to synopsize in any detail, the good guy must prevent the bad guy from acquiring something deadly or powerful. That’s it. That’s all they’re about. There is usually also an attractive woman, whom the good guy must also prevent the bad guy from acquiring, and sometimes she’s deadly or powerful. But not enough, of course, to shadow the hero. Oh, and there are stunts, and lots of meaningless running around, and lots more meaningless exposition about the meaning of all this meaninglessness, and yet more stunts.

Cruise’s superspy hero, Ethan Hunt, must stop evil renegade agent Dougray Scott before he can infect the population of Sydney, Australia with a lethal virus. The villain’s plan is to create a demand for the virus’ antidote, which he can then supply, for an immodest fee. Ethan sends his new lady love Thandie Newton, who was once involved with the villain, to go back to him so she can spy on him. Since Cruise and Newton have zero chemistry together, we’re not especially moved by Ethan’s turmoil and jealousy when his lover ends up back in his enemy’s arms.

Watching a cluttered, dawdling “adventure” like Mission: Impossible 2, you may flash back on the relatively trim and straightforward Indiana Jones movies, which had just as much globe-trotting and a plot identical to the one I described in the paragraph before last, but which also had pace and momentum. M:I2 founders and drags — the middle third is incredibly dull — and that’s a shocker coming from John Woo, who’s usually an artist of propulsive, balletic violence. In earlier movies, Woo’s patented slow-mo passages — Sam Peckinpah buffed to a gleaming shine — riveted our attention and forged beauty out of chaos. Here, Woo just seems to fall back on slow-mo whenever he gets bored, which apparently is often. The movie is never bad to look at — Woo knows where to put the camera — but it’s hollowly attractive. Even Woo’s signature dove is just a sad grace note here, a reminder of better films.

Tom Cruise may enjoy throwing himself into the sleek physicality of these movies, but it doesn’t do much for me. Ethan Hunt remains a cipher, a wind-up action figure who can do damn near anything short of flying. In the outlandish finale, he even does a little of that. The climax is admittedly a jolt of caffeine — it’s as if Woo were finally, finally being let out to play after being locked inside Robert Towne’s pedestrian script for two hours, and he cuts loose. The stunts and collisions here, like the best moments in De Palma’s film, get you laughing at their kinetic daffiness. But it’s too little, too late. Towards the end, some members of the audience didn’t even wait till fade-out to head for the aisle; others left silently when it was over, and the audience throughout the film, indeed, was mostly silent. Mission: Impossible 2 doesn’t give us a whooping good time; most of it feels static and self-indulgent. Cruise himself seems to be having a blast, kicking and whirling in the fresh air and sunshine; too bad he forgot to let the rest of us in on his fun.

Small Time Crooks

May 19, 2000

large_small_time_crooks_blu-ray_05Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks is undoubtedly his biggest financial success in years — $11 million as of its third weekend — and having seen it, I can understand why: It’s very amiable and very broad. Gone is the venom of Deconstructing Harry, the insider satire of Celebrity, the fancy structure of Mighty Aphrodite and Sweet and Lowdown — all recent Woody flops. Somewhere in the middle of Small Time Crooks, a cookie mogul explains the success of a rival cookie tycoon: all you have to do is make a product the public wants. Small Time Crooks is a pretty good cookie.

Woody downscales his IQ to play Ray Winkler, a former (and inept) criminal turned dishwasher. Ray has a scheme to rob a bank: he’ll purchase an abandoned storefront nearby, and dig a tunnel up into the bank. Ray’s wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) can’t believe what she’s hearing, but eventually she goes along with it, running a cookie business out front while Ray and his cronies (the hilarious trio of Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tony Darrow) drill away in the basement.

From this slapsticky farce, complete with gushing water mains and wrong tunnel turns, Small Time Crooks takes an abrupt, hard left into social criticism. I’d so enjoyed the acting teamwork of the four bumbling thieves, capably abetted by Ullman’s derisive Frenchy and Elaine May as her spacey cousin May, that the second half of the film came as a slight letdown. The jokes keep coming, but this time they’re at the expense of the rich snobs Ray and Frenchy find themselves among when their cookie business unexpectedly turns into a gold mine.

Frenchy wants to become part of high society, and gets lessons in art and culture from a slick art dealer (Hugh Grant, returning to the aristocratic-bastard roles he used to play before he became a dithering marquee name). Ray can’t stand the pretense and glitz of the upscale New York life — he yearns to move to Miami, fill up on cheeseburgers and beer, and hit the racetrack every day. Perhaps part of the secret of the movie’s success is that it tells the rest of the country that the high life in the Big Apple — always held up for envy — isn’t worth aspiring to.

We’ve seen much of this before; it feels like a half-remembered episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph and Alice strike it rich and find that money can’t buy happiness. (I’m not sure if there ever was such an episode, but other sitcoms have done it; in any event, Woody explicitly makes this movie an homage to Jackie Gleason and company.) The movie focuses on how money changes (or doesn’t change) Ray and Frenchy, but I wanted to see more of Ray’s cronies, who get absorbed into the cookie company as executive officers. And come to think of it, doesn’t Frenchy have any friends? We never see any besides her cousin May.

We’re glad the cousin is around, though, because Elaine May — a screenwriter these last few decades, who has done very little performing since her stage days with Mike Nichols — swipes the movie right out from under Allen and Ullman. (Call her a big-time crook.) Whether she’s giving a weather report to baffled stuffed shirts at a dinner party or blurting out secrets to a camera crew, Cousin May is completely herself, despite her large share in the cookie profits. She’s the same person; she just has a nicer apartment now. Unlike Frenchy, May has no aspirations to loftier things; unlike Ray, she’s comfortable with her wealth. So she emerges as the movie’s slightly daffy hero, and Elaine May gives a quietly heroic comic performance to match. She’s the mint in this particular cookie.

Hamlet (2000)

May 12, 2000

This is undoubtedly the first screen rendition of Hamlet in which “Blockbuster Clerk” appears among the character names in the credits. Shakespeare, of course, failed to write any dialogue for the mute Blockbuster Clerk; in an equally stunning failure, he neglected to set any scenes in a laundromat, as this new movie does. Lest any of this sound ridiculous — a youth-chasing MTV Bard spectacle á la 1996’s Romeo + Juliet — bear in mind that this Hamlet, directed on the cheap by Michael Almereyda, is in its own way as honorable and serious an attempt as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. True, it’s also not completely successful, but then neither was Branagh’s version, which pointlessly included the pointless bits of the play in its thirst to film everything. This new Hamlet tosses out scenes by the dozen, and works quite well as a stripped-down, modern-dress vision of Shakespeare.

We’re in “New York, 2000,” where the young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) slouches around in a haze of depression and contempt. His father (Sam Shepard), the CEO of Manhattan’s thriving Denmark Corporation, has just died, and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) has jumped quite happily — too happily — into the arms of his uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). Hawke, moping fashionably into the camera, turns out to be a feasible melancholy Dane for this uptown Hamlet. Hawke doesn’t get Kenneth Branagh’s dynamism, but Branagh didn’t get Hawke’s nihilistic despair. Put the two together and you might have the perfect Hamlet (who is said to be perhaps the most unplayable character ever written — an actor is lucky to get a bit of it down). Hawke’s Hamlet also makes artsy videos (of himself and others), which we see a lot of, and which I could’ve done with a little less of.

Almereyda (who made the experimental vampire film Nadja) and his cinematographer John de Borman walk the line between sleek and grungy; they seem equally at home in Claudius’ well-groomed offices and in Hamlet’s VHS-littered pit. At first, as always, it’s a bit jarring to hear Shakespeare’s words coming from people in modern dress, and when Claudius makes his first speech he waves a copy of that morning’s USA Today, with a blaring cover story on Fortinbras. (Even the eagle-eyed may not identify Fortinbras as Ben Affleck’s brother Casey.) But none of it comes across as gimmicky; the movie is almost playful in its mission to burrow around inside Hamlet and discover what’s still relevant about it.

Some of the actors are playful, too. Bill Murray’s reading of Polonius’ famous advice is a little too recitatory — he reminded me of when I had to memorize it for school and rattled it off to a bored teacher — but when he sends Laertes off with “The time invites you. Go!”, it sounds like pure Murray; he could almost be saying “Geddouda here, ya nut.” Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora make a great, glittering dark couple, devoted to the pleasures of the rich. (Claudius belongs in a limo with tinted windows.) Julia Stiles is a fine, sullen Ophelia — she and Hamlet are the Prozac twins — and comes up with an amazing breakdown scene at the Guggenheim. Even the raffish Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) turns up as a party-boy Rosencrantz; he’s incongruously terrific, as is Paula Malcomson as “Marcella” (yes, Horatio’s soldier acquaintance has had a sex change).

Hamlet drives steadily and forcefully to its traditionally bloody conclusion, in which Hamlet and Laertes (Liev Schreiber gives a surprisingly imposing performance) duel it out; Almereyda manages to toss in a gun on top of the usual swords and poison. Before that, there’s a nicely telescoped scene in which Hamlet, in lieu of having a band of players enact his guilt-inducing play, puts together his own video pastiche pointing a finger at the murderer of his father. This video, unlike the other Hamlet snippets we’ve seen, has genuine power; what could have been artsy and pretentious instead cuts to the quick. By and large, the same is true of Almereyda’s movie.

Battlefield Earth

May 12, 2000

battlefield_earth_2000_032When a movie attracts as much critical venom as Battlefield Earth has, I try to go against the grain if I can; I like to champion films nobody else appreciates. So, without further ado, here are the good things about Battlefield Earth:

(1) It has endlessly bad dialogue ripe for Mystery Science Theater 3000 ridicule. Right from the start, when the hero brings medicine back to his village only to be told “The gods took your father in the night,” I knew what we were all in for.

(2) It’s only 117 minutes long. It could have been longer.

Battlefield Earth is this year’s what-were-they-thinking? movie — a folly so supreme that it occasionally inspires awe, in the sense that so many people spent so much time and money on it without ever realizing how awful it is. John Travolta, the star and co-producer of this adaptation of a “best-seller” by his Scientologist mentor L. Ron Hubbard, has said that the movie only covers the first half of the lengthy book, which obviously leaves things open for — you’re sitting down, right? — a sequel. I have just one thing to say to that: You mean there’s more?

We’re in the year 3000, when humans have been all but wiped out by a warlike, Klingon-esque race called the Psychlos. A handful of humans, reduced to grungy caveman status, are still subsisting on the small wildlife of Earth. One of them, Johnnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper), steps forth and leads the enslaved humans in a mutiny against the Psychlos. Partially, this involves a ploy by the Psychlos’ “leader of security,” Terl (Travolta), who actually facilitates the mutiny so that he can make off with the gold he’s forcing the humans to mine for him. No dummies, the humans just travel to Fort Knox and bring back a bunch of gold bars for Terl, who never asks what technology the humans used to smelt the gold.

For long stretches, Travolta gets more screen time than the nominal hero; we get a few scenes of Terl grousing about orders from the “home office,” like a latex-laden Dilbert. I wouldn’t call Travolta’s performance bad, exactly — he’s fascinating here, because you constantly monitor him for signs that he realizes how silly the movie is. He doesn’t seem to notice. He tries to work up a diabolical head of steam, but I kept feeling that he was making some deep Scientological point with his character, some object lesson of how not to be. He seems, at least, to be having some fun, which cannot be said of poor Barry Pepper, whose strong supporting work in Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile should remain pure in your memory, unblemished by his helplessly bland performance here.

The plot is so nonsensical as to be almost surreal — perhaps it came from the home office. Terl obligingly pumps Johnnie full of helpful data, including the Psychlonian language, so that Johnnie can eventually use it to teach his fellow humans how to fly centuries-old jet fighters and blow up the Psychlos. I would’ve loved just one human to say “I can’t believe how stupid these guys are.” Viewers may well say that about the movie, too. Believe it. Battlefield Earth isn’t the usual boring waste of resources. It’s a laughable waste of resources that, more laughable still, aspires to higher things. And there’s something almost touching about that ending, which so innocently, so trustingly leaves the door open for a sequel, as if this mess were going to make so much money and inspire such love in our hearts that we’d clamor for Battlefield Earth 2. I have every confidence that the second half of the novel will go unfilmed, and will also go as largely unread as the first half.

Gladiator (2000)

May 5, 2000

Political junkies may be amused by Gladiator, the burly and boring new epic directed by Ridley Scott. This, after all, is the story of a former warrior who has a chance at ruling his land, until the spoiled son of royalty brings him low. The film even features a noble senator who wants to boot the son of royalty out of power. Read Gladiator as the John McCain story and you might stay interested in it for a while.

It’s not often that a movie exists on several levels of rip-off. Gladiator doesn’t only remind you of earlier, better sword-and-sandal sagas like Spartacus and Ben-Hur. When the hero, the great Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe), narrowly escapes assassination and returns home to find his wife and son brutally slain, you half expect mad Maximus to jump into a modified police car and run down some Aussie motorcycle punks. And the hate-athon between Maximus and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the unworthy blood heir to the throne of Caesar, has a distinct Ten Commandments whiff about it: Maximus/Moses is the superior son that Caesar/Pharoah wishes he had instead of getting stuck with Commodus/Rameses.

Critics have also compared the early battle sequence in Gladiator to the early battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan, with which any reasonable filmgoer must beg to differ. The key difference is that, for all its jerky camera movements and shutter-angle reduction for a sped-up, strobe effect, the Saving Private Ryan sequence was actually possible to follow. Ridley Scott uses the same technique — he had actually used it before in his inept G.I. Jane, so I can’t say he’s swiping from Spielberg — but the editing is so ferocious, the action filmed so close in, and the lighting so punishingly dim, that you literally can’t tell what’s going on. This also goes for the scenes inside the Coliseum, when Maximus returns to Rome as a slave and gladiator bent on vengeance. He kills lots of opponents, I guess — who can tell?

You know you’re not in for a subtle evening at the movies when the hero is named Maximus, which sounds like a brand of condom. Russell Crowe does his best to breathe life into this bronze statue of a character, and it’ll be a deep irony if, after years of complex performances in box-office failures like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, this stoic beefcake role is the one that puts him over the top. Joaquin Phoenix, by virtue of having fun with his rotten Commodus and sharing the fun with us, skitters away with the movie. When a movie hero is this opaque, one’s interest naturally shifts to the decadent villain and the actor enjoying playing him.

Has Ridley Scott lost it? Gladiator is one of the worst-looking movies ever made by a former visual genius. The Coliseum, mostly created in a computer and populated by crowds also created in a computer, is compelling proof that CGI has a long way to go. Scott even uses CGI on poor Oliver Reed, who died during filming; a stand-in with Reed’s digitally mapped face plays Reed’s final scene. It looks okay, but subliminally there is still something off about it — I couldn’t focus on a word the fake Reed was saying.

Gladiator marches grimly to its conclusion; three screenwriters can’t add much spice to this reheated beef stew. If a gladiator film doesn’t work as spectacle or as bloodthirsty action, what’s left? Drama? It’s dead on that level, too, unless you haven’t seen Braveheart or even Hamlet, from which the climactic fight borrows. Gladiator is a monument to meat-eating retro masculinity — I can imagine the guys on The Man Show raving about it — but that’s finally all it is. It will be amusing, though, to listen to all the guys talk about how much they loved Gladiator while avoiding the uncomfortable subtext of why they loved it.