Archive for July 2000

Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps

July 28, 2000

In 1996’s The Nutty Professor, itself a remake of Jerry Lewis’ split-personality classic, Eddie Murphy seemed to exorcise his old, brash persona (in the form of the vicious Buddy Love) and embrace a new, egoless approach to comedy. Covered in latex, he seemed more present, more himself, than he had in years. It felt like more than a comeback; it felt as though Murphy had torched the first half of his career and risen from the ashes, fake flab and all. Murphy’s choices since then (Dr. Dolittle, Holy Man, Bowfinger) have been hit or miss, but at least he hasn’t regressed to the aggressive shtick that worked in the ’80s and then, quite abruptly, stopped working.

The main thing wrong with Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, which otherwise isn’t a bad movie, is that Buddy Love is back. The portly professor Sherman Klump, it seems, still hasn’t eradicated all traces of Buddy — his lust, his nastiness — from his consciousness; indeed, we see that Buddy is actually part of Sherman’s DNA. Sherman is about to marry a lovely colleague (Janet Jackson), and he wants Buddy out of his system. Inevitably, the process of isolating and removing the “Buddy gene” goes awry, and Buddy surfaces as a separate, physical entity who torments Sherman and plots to steal Sherman’s newly developed youth serum. Buddy keeps popping up, getting more tiresome each time he brays in our faces. We agree with Sherman: Buddy is an irritant in Sherman’s life and in the movie, too.

Perhaps the reason Murphy plays Sherman so sensitively and well, especially in the scenes in both movies when Sherman is down on himself, is that Murphy is well-acquainted with self-hatred. After all, Buddy, who looks pretty much like Eddie Murphy, is the most obnoxious person in the film. Disappearing inside Rick Baker’s makeup to play not only Sherman but (almost) his entire family, Murphy can do characters; he can act. (Recall, too, how he changed his appearance for Bowfinger.) I think he knows that “Eddie Murphy” is limited to a certain type of suave role. In disguise, he can cut loose and, within this farcical context, dabble in serious acting.

Consider the scenes with the Klump family gathered around the table or the TV. Very quickly, you stop looking for the seams that enable Eddie Murphy as Papa Klump to interact with Eddie Murphy as Mama Klump. Each performance is so thoroughly distinct, each character so subtly drawn, that it’s not hard at all to suspend disbelief and imagine you’re watching a real family played by a variety of actors. This isn’t just make-up gimmickry; Murphy uses Rick Baker’s immense talents as a tool to burrow into character, to become someone else, on the inside as well as the outside. When, as Sherman, he acts opposite Janet Jackson, he displays a gentle, bashful ardor he wouldn’t be able to pull off as “Eddie Murphy.”

The movie itself is pretty crass. We spend a little too much time watching the randy Granny Klump haplessly trying to seduce the revolted Buddy (the moment doesn’t have the comeuppance zing that it should; the audience retches along with Buddy). There are the usual scatalogical jokes — a few of which, I have to admit, made me laugh (there’s a quick, wicked scene that trashes 2001, Star Wars, and Armageddon all at once) — and a show-stopper featuring a giant hamster whose amorous attentions focus on the unfortunate Larry Miller. But any movie in which Eddie Murphy can play reconciliation scenes not only with Janet Jackson but with himself (Papa and Mama have a falling-out over Papa’s use of the youth serum), and make each one feel believable, isn’t to be dismissed lightly.

When he plays the Klumps in full force, it’s as if Murphy were eagerly showing us the comic genius and acting range that went untapped for years, like a one-note musician who suddenly stumbled upon the freedom to try a variety of instruments, and turned out to play them all like a virtuoso. If this has to happen in a crude comedy aimed mainly at adolescents, that’s a compromise I’m willing to accept.

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But I’m a Cheerleader

July 28, 2000

tumblr_mgfhkoxD3J1s1u4rao1_1280In the self-consciously farcical But I’m a Cheerleader, everyone thinks Natasha Lyonne is a lesbian, so she gets sent to a special camp (“True Directions”) where young gay people are conditioned to be hetero. Does it work? No. The hetero-izing process, that is. Neither does the movie. But I’m a Cheerleader tries way too hard to be a John Waters movie — it’s even got Waters regular Mink Stole as Natasha’s mom. It’s also trying too hard to be a cult comedy — Bud Cort turns up as Natasha’s dad, and the sight of Stole, Cort, and Lyonne at the dinner table (saying grace, yet) should be funkier than it is. Waters would’ve had a field day with this idea; so would Alexander Payne, whose satire would’ve been more even-handed. Sounds like a promising premise, right? But the movie blows it by (A) trading in witless stereotypes and (B) not being remotely funny, despite the Roger Ebert blurb on the DVD box (was he on laughing gas or something?). A great comedy or drama could’ve been made about the whole “I Used to Be Gay Until I Turned to God” thing (an appalling real-life phenomenon), and this ain’t it.

This is the kind of supposedly gay-friendly movie that traffics in stereotypes like whoa. The gay guys are your basic swishes, and the parents are uptight assholes without fail. The only group allowed to have some variety are the lesbians, who include Clea DuVall as a tomboy named Graham, Katharine Towne as a surly goth chick, Katrina Phillips as a butch jock, and Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) as the sort of bashful girl she usually plays, only lesbian (she and Lyonne had just been in Detroit Rock City together). But really even the lesbians fall into generally recognized dyke stereotypes (although the dykiest one — the butch jock — turns out to be hetero after all).

In all, it’s another case of “dykes are chic, fags are funny.” We’re encouraged to laugh at pretty much every instance of gay male identity (stereotyped or otherwise) we see. Example: Two former True Directions members, a gay couple named Larry and Lloyd Morgan-Gordon (Richard Moll and Wesley Mann), are sympathetic characters — they take some of the kids out for a night at a gay club (called the Cocksucker, and show me the community that’d allow a club with that name within fifty miles of the town limits), and provide shelter for TD’s outcasts. But they’re still the standard-issue bickering gay couple, and even their hyphenated name is meant to be a joke. Conversely, no particular lesbian traits come in for much goofing. During the kids’ “gender identity training,” the girls are competent enough at the housewife skills they’re taught, whereas the gay boys are haplessly inept at football, car repair, cutting wood, etc., and are easily distracted by the camp supervisor’s hunky son. This movie is basically for lesbians and for hetero women who enjoy gay men as sources of comfort and campy humor. Gay men may likely, and rightly, take the movie as a slap in the face.

Here’s an example of the movie’s meant-to-be-funny casting: RuPaul, in guy mode, plays one of TD’s trainers. He makes his first appearance wearing a “Straight Is Great” T-shirt. (Didn’t he notice how much fag-minstrelsy was in the script?) Cathy Moriarty is the camp supervisor, and her scenes with Lyonne have some potential for amusement given that the prematurely deep-voiced Lyonne is basically Moriarty 20 years ago, but instead you just note that Moriarty hasn’t aged well and hope Lyonne has a better time of it.

How’s Natasha in it? Weird. I mean, not intentionally, but seeing her being all cheerleader-y in this after seeing her scruffy riot-grrl performance in Confessions of a Trickbaby (aka Freeway 2) is … well … weird. I’m not sure she sells the cheerleader aspect — they needed more of a bouncy Reese Witherspoon type, or Laura Dern 15 years ago — but she’s worth watching even when fundamentally miscast. Honestly, she would’ve been more believable in the Clea DuVall role, but then we’d lose DuVall in one of her better performances.

Lyonne and DuVall make a nice couple; their low-key acting styles mesh well, and when they start falling for each other their scenes together become candid, genuine, touching, and eventually erotic. They seem to be falling in love in a different movie from the one unfolding so goofily and broadly around them. Their love scenes are sensitively done and serious (whereas, again, the brief gay-male sexuality we see is fumbling and comical); the rest of the movie is irredeemably cartoonish. Well, any movie with a cameo by Julie Delpy as a character credited as “Lipstick Lesbian” can’t be all bad. Though it’s a close call.

What Lies Beneath

July 21, 2000

The ghost haunting What Lies Beneath is not murder most foul, but the shadow of Hitchcock. I would say the spirit of Hitchcock, but the spirit of Hitchcock is playfully diabolical; Brian De Palma gleefully ripped off Hitch, and his glee was truer to the master than any of the bits of style he swiped. The director of What Lies Beneath, unfortunately, is Robert Zemeckis, who may have had the sense of humor beaten out of him after his much-underrated comedy Death Becomes Her. Zemeckis reproduces Hitchcock, but at a crawl that makes even the leisurely paced Hitch seem brisk; it’s like watching High Anxiety played straight and at the wrong speed. If this is the spirit of Hitchcock, it’s a very spiritless spirit.

I always feel the need to say that Zemeckis is still one of the top directors out there. What Lies Beneath is immaculately and handsomely assembled, as was his Contact, and the Oscar-eating Forrest Gump before that. Perhaps he’s simply going through a similar rut to the one his friend Steven Spielberg went through pre-Schindler’s List — giving his all to scripts that don’t give much back. This one, by Clark Gregg, paints by the numbers so ineptly that the result is a chaotic smear on a canvas. Zemeckis’ work here is like a painstaking photo of that bad painting. If he wanted to do a suspense thriller, he should’ve held out for a better one.

In what seems less like a plausible marriage than a studio decision, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer — he a scientist, she a former cellist — go through the motions of love for a few early scenes. As if anticipating how little chemistry Ford and Pfeiffer have together, Gregg’s script keeps them apart for most of the film. Alone in their Martha-Stewart-worthy Vermont lakeside home, Pfeiffer has lots of time to hear strange noises and glimpse odd sights. A door opens by itself; a tub fills up by itself. Trouble is, Zemeckis repeats these omens at least three times each, risking such snarky audience comments as “Yep, there’s the tub again.”

Pfeiffer fears that the ghostly manifestations have to do with a quarreling couple next door; she suspects that the husband killed his wife and that her ghost is trying to contact Pfeiffer. Those who’ve seen the trailer for What Lies Beneath know differently, but they don’t know the whole story. I’ll say only that Harrison Ford, for the most part giving the latest in a string of somnambulistic performances, must have been sold on the script on the power of its climax, because for most of the movie he’s little more than a high-priced supporting actor. It’s Pfeiffer’s movie, and though I dislike how she wins our sympathy by making us feel protective of her fragile heroine — I prefer her stronger and gutsier — she wins it anyway, creating a believably haunted woman. Too bad the script isn’t worth her effort.

I grew to love The Sixth Sense over repeated viewings; that was the sort of thriller that gains substance in your memory and creates the nagging but warm feeling of not only needing to see it again, but wanting to. It wasn’t a supernatural gimmick or a surprise ending that gave the movie great word of mouth and attracted viewers back for more; it was its human heart, the gentle rapport between the boy and his psychiatrist or his mother. What Lies Beneath has about ten times as many “Boo!” scenes as The Sixth Sense, but isn’t a tenth as haunting or as touching. It’s just gimmick all the way, and that extends to the ending, which toys with the audience’s star-power expectations in a way that feels thoroughly artificial. There’s a good, nail-biting sequence in a tub (yep, there’s the tub again), but the events leading to it and following it are borderline laughable, without the heedless joy that distinguished, say, De Palma’s thrillers or Kenneth Branagh’s lovably overwrought Dead Again. Ridiculous thriller moments that don’t invite you to giggle along with the director are in deep trouble. And I keep flashing back to Zemeckis’ drawn-out staging of the “Boo!” scenes, as if he were determined to prolong the suspense so much that the audience would squirm out of its seats. Squirm they will, but maybe for other reasons.

X-Men

July 14, 2000

At some level, X-Men — the comic book and the movie it has spawned — is, has been, and always will be adolescent hokum, but it’s adolescent hokum that can get around your shields and get to you. When writer Chris Claremont gave the X-Men comic a makeover in the mid-’70s, he knew exactly how to turn it into a fan favorite: tap into the average comic-book reader’s feelings of being misunderstood, ridiculed, alienated from the popular crowd. The noble mutants — superheroes born with uncanny powers, and persecuted by society for it — were stand-ins for their audience. Whether X-Men can connect with a summer-blockbuster audience on the same metaphoric level remains to be seen, but it deserves to; it’s probably the most fully-rounded and satisfying bit of popcorn entertainment we’ve gotten this summer, or are likely to get.

The movie opens, oddly enough, in a Holocaust concentration-camp setting; we witness a young boy, who will grow up to be the vengeful Magneto (Ian McKellen), traumatically separated from his parents by Nazi soldiers. Manifesting his powers, the young Magneto causes the camp’s iron gates to bend. Some will question whether Holocaust imagery should be used to spruce up a summer comic-book movie, but the moment has surprising power; so does much of the rest of the film. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), who has never worked on a blockbuster scale before, tosses off the special-effects scenes — they’re necessary, but he’s not all that crazy about them — and focuses, believe it or not, on the personalities and philosophies in conflict.

Mutants are under attack; the self-righteous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), using rhetoric straight out of Joe McCarthy’s playbook, calls for all mutants to be registered (“Would you want your children to go to school with mutants? Be taught by mutants?”). Magneto, who has seen this sort of thing before, mistrusts humans and sees the conflict as a war that mutants must win in order to survive. His opposite, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), is more optimistic — he runs a private school devoted to helping young mutants refine their “gifts” for the greater good. Among Xavier’s recruits are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a brutal scrapper with claws that pop out of his fists; Storm (Halle Berry), who commands the weather; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes shoot lethal lasers; Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a budding telepath; and Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose touch robs people of their essence and/or mutant abilities.

Magneto plans to use some sort of mutating ray on the world’s leaders, to turn them into mutants and therefore level the playing field. Trouble is, he’s too old to run the machine himself any more; it takes too much out of him, so he kidnaps the young Rogue, and her fellow X-Men swing into action. But X-Men is less about action than about the awkward electricity passing between, say, Wolverine and Jean Grey (she’s involved with Cyclops but doesn’t seem very intimate with him), or the ideological opponents Xavier and Magneto. X-Men packs a lot into its 104 minutes, but still finds time for a nicely understated scene between the skittish runaway Rogue and the slowly sympathetic Wolverine in his dingy truck; the dialogue, credited to David Hayter (as many as five other writers worked on the script), has much less macho attitudinizing than Claremont’s own verbiage (I revisited some back issues after seeing the movie, and winced). Singer and Hayter have taken Claremont’s compelling basic blueprint — weird heroes with wounded souls — and streamlined it.

The movie deftly sets up each character in a way that establishes his or her powers and personalities (Wolverine is a cynical loner; Cyclops is a stiff; and so on) lightly and quickly, and then gets on to the next thing. As summer movies go, X-Men is remarkably crisp and economical; it’s not overawed by its own special effects, even when an unfortunate character’s too, too solid flesh melts, thaws, and resolves itself into a dew. The acting is also a lot better than it had to be — Hugh Jackman nails the balance of brooder and berserker that Wolverine fans will demand; Anna Paquin’s untouchable Rogue gives you a pang of sorrow for this poor girl — though I wish Ian McKellen’s saturnine Magneto had more lively henchmen to bounce his wit off of; his minions (Tyler Mane’s animalistic Sabretooth, Ray Park’s tongue-lashing Toad, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ shape-shifting Mystique) have little or no dialogue, yet I must admit that Mystique the freaky blue hellcat is a terrific visual.

Singer and McKellen worked magic together in Apt Pupil — another movie that used the Holocaust as a jumping-off point quite effectively — and McKellen approaches this comic-book villain (with the rather embarrassing pronunciation “Mag-neato“) without a scrap of condescension or even conscious hamming. The role doesn’t take dignity away from him; he gives dignity to the role, and to the film. Like the misbegotten Battlefield Earth, the movie ends with the promise of more to come (there’s a terrific final scene between Xavier and Magneto), but in this case you want to see more. Bryan Singer brings a casual touch to blockbuster wizardry, as in a charming classroom scene when one bored mutant idly makes a fireball and another bored student turns it into an iceball. X-Men shows every sign of being a smart, truly magical adventure-movie series.

Heavy Metal 2000

July 14, 2000

If the Heavy Metal movies offer any message for mankind, it’s that anything green and glowing can’t be good. In the insipid Heavy Metal 2000, the embodiment of evil is not a green, glowing ball but a green, glowing crystal — a key to immortalizing waters. Slight catch: If you touch this key, you go insane. Thus, an ordinary space pilot named Tyler (voiced by Michael Ironside) gets his meathooks on the key and suddenly becomes rabidly homicidal (he also suddenly gets fangs and a mane of black hair). This is not unlike what happened to the ordinary townspeople of “Taarna,” the final segment of the original 1981 Heavy Metal, when they were engulfed by green glowing lava and became evil. The rest of Heavy Metal 2000 is not unlike “Taarna,” either. Indeed, it’s more or less an 88-minute rehash of that story, without the original’s brevity or grandeur.

Tyler commandeers a spacecraft and lays waste to a place called Eden, where people don’t age as quickly. One person who survives the massacre is Julie, a strapping six-footer much like the B-movie actress who voices her, Julie Strain. Tyler has killed her father and kidnapped her sister, so Julie goes into vengeful overdrive along with a goofball pilot, a little guy made of stone, and a mysterious mentor named Odin (voice by Billy Idol). As a spiritual sister to Taarna, Julie looks the part, but Taarna didn’t speak; unfortunately, Julie does.

Julie Strain, whose comic-book-mogul husband Kevin Eastman shaped this movie for her (he co-created the graphic novel The Melting Pot on which it’s loosely based), seems like a nice enough person, but she’s not a natural actress under the best of circumstances. In the clips I’ve seen, her line delivery is weirdly flat and amateurish, like the delivery of the most conscientious untalented student in acting class; what saves her are her presence — she really is six-foot-one — and her vibrant off-camera personality, which peeks through the empty posturing she usually has to do. As just a voice, though, Strain is, well, strained. Not that even the best actress could do much with Robert Payne Cabeen’s script, heavy on dialogue like “Don’t talk, don’t touch, don’t move, don’t breathe — or I’ll kill you!”

The original Heavy Metal‘s animation may look crude to some viewers today, but at least it was alive and kicking; it owed its inspiration more to Ralph Bakshi than to anything else. Heavy Metal 2000‘s character design takes a page from the bland humanoids who populate some of the weaker Disney/Don Bluth/DreamWorks toons. (There were very few human characters in the original Heavy Metal who looked as if they would’ve belonged anywhere near a Disney film.) The filmmakers were reportedly concerned about avoiding a “Saturday-morning-cartoon” look, but that’s pretty much what they ended up with. As if to offset this, the directors (Michel Lemire and Michael Coldewey, both of whom would do well to leave this off their resumés) stuff backgrounds and incidental scenes with computer-animated spaceships, debris, and so on. The film should be seen by animation students as a textbook example of how not to integrate computer animation with old-school cel animation.

The story is old-school, too. Did Kevin Eastman not realize that the core audience for this film would have seen, and remembered with pleasure, the original movie’s final segment? Eastman, the ’80s precursor to Todd McFarlane (he and Peter Laird created Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which made them millionaires), has said that he wanted to tell a story with a strong heroine — as if TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena, and La Femme Nikita hadn’t been doing that for years; as if “Taarna” hadn’t done it 19 years ago. Here he falls back on the usual fanboy idea of strong womanhood — the scowling bitch-babe with tits out to here. Taarna was that, too, to a certain extent, but the original Heavy Metal was a joking compendium of fanboy fantasies, and Taarna was a definite advance in 1981. Julie is a step back, at certain points disrobing so gratuitously that I was put in the odd position of feeling offended on behalf of an animated character.

Michael Ironside and Billy Idol have fun hamming it up, and there’s one funny moment when a robot sex doll activates itself and goes to town on Julie’s hapless pilot sidekick during a space battle. But overall, this is a joyless trudge through decades-old clichés, with about twenty gallons more gore than in the original (the MPAA must be more lenient towards animated bloodshed; the same violence, if done as live-action, would never have slipped by with an R rating). Even musically, Heavy Metal 2000 can’t touch its predecessor, which found room for the calming Donald Fagen and Stevie Nicks as well as the pumping Black Sabbath and Sammy Hagar; this movie’s soundtrack is almost all grinding techno-thrash gibberish — I call it music to be constipated to — and it heightens the project’s general cheesiness. This is the sort of movie in which the evil Tyler pulls out one of his loose incisors and you know, absolutely know, that in later shots he won’t be missing any teeth. The movie is pretty toothless itself; it gums its story like the pablum it is.

Chuck & Buck

July 14, 2000

“Oodily oodily fun fun fun,” croons Gwendolyn Sanford in the infectious tune incessantly played by man-child Buck (Mike White) on his bedroom turntable. Buck is fixated on Chuck (Chris Weitz), a former childhood buddy now married and ensconced in a comfortable job. A clearcut case of arrested development, Buck stalks Chuck, trying to remind him of the exact nature of their past relationship. The movie is undeniably creepy, and unfairly excoriated as such by some critics (who didn’t seem to understand it’s supposed to be creepy), but it’s also a tour de force of irony and wit. Mike White, who’d done a lot of TV work (Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks), here put himself on the A list of hip new screenwriters and gave a bravely unflattering performance that could’ve stopped his career dead in its tracks. It illustrates two sides of the same Gen-X coin: one side wants to stay a kid forever, the other side throws himself into the corporate pool as if running from childhood. A detailed and often moving work. White and director Miguel Arteta later collaborated on The Good Girl.