Archive for November 2000

Little Nicky

November 20, 2000

MV5BOTU3Mjk1ODA3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDAzNTU0NA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_NOTE: It’s probably worth remembering that this was written before Sandler really started his assault on audience taste, intelligence, and sanity. Some would say the decline began here or even with The Waterboy or Big Daddy, but I stood with him until standing with him became aromatically unpleasant.

If you’re not already an admirer of the cinema of Adam Sandler — if, in fact, you’re one of the many who can’t seem to stand him — Little Nicky isn’t likely to win you over. As Nicky, the dweeby youngest offspring of Satan, Sandler almost goes out of his way to put off non-Sandlerites: speaking in a croaking voice that’s a cross between childish and child-molester, wearing his hair in two greasy black points across his face, he’s hard to look at and listen to. Yet Sandler remains essentially likable, a dork who stays true to himself and tries to do the right thing. Which in this case, oddly, is getting Satan reinstated to his throne in Hell. 

Satan, played by an ingeniously cast Harvey Keitel as a sort of brimstone riff on his courtly Mr. Fix-It in Pulp Fiction, has reigned in Hell for 10,000 years; he’s supposed to step down and give the keys to one of his three sons — Nicky, who doesn’t really want it, or his two brothers, the saturnine Adrian (Rhys Ifans, from Notting Hill) and the imposing Cassius (Tiny Lister). When Satan decides to stay in charge, reasoning that his spawn aren’t mature enough to “keep a balance between good and evil,” Nicky’s brothers rebel, escaping to Earth and blocking the entrance to Hell so that no new souls can get in. This case of metaphysical constipation is bad for Satan, who starts falling apart. It’s up to Nicky, with the help of a talking dog named Mr. Beefy (voiced by Robert Smigel), to catch his brothers and save his dad. 

I can’t say that Adam Sandler’s movies have ever made me laugh hard and nonstop (though his gently goofy voice in The Waterboy kept me amused throughout), and Little Nicky is no different. It’s a shambling, shabby comedy, basically good-hearted and naggingly endearing, and this movie’s high concept and snazzy special effects don’t detract from its lowdown charm. As always, Sandler meets a quirky woman (this time it’s Patricia Arquette, sweetly geeky in glasses, reminding us after such duds as Stigmata why some of us find her appealing); as always, he becomes bashful and sincere around her, offering his affections without ever trying to pretend he’s something he isn’t. (Well, he does tell Arquette he’s from “the deep South.” If so, did he mess with the ballots down there?) 

At times, Little Nicky feels like Kevin Smith’s Dogma without the, well, dogma, or discussion of same. Unlike the Catholic Smith, the Jewish Sandler has no particular axes to grind or questions to ask about the God/Satan thing; he pulls together a cast worthy of Dogma (there’s a ton of cameos, including many Saturday Night Live veterans), but the scripting here (by Sandler, Tim Herlihy, and director Steven Brill) is more laid-back than Smith’s. Nicky lands in Manhattan, a place full of eccentrics, including two goofy headbangers, wannabe actor Allen Covert (a Sandler pal), and manic blind street preacher Quentin Tarantino. Hell is equally full of lively personalities, and those who remember Rhys Ifans as the scruffy Welshman in Notting Hill will be surprised to see him cleaned up here, looking like Ralph Fiennes crossed with Ziggy Stardust; when he temporarily claims Hell’s throne, he looks like he belongs there. Ifans is an actor to watch. 

Little Nicky is a pleasantly sloppy party that doesn’t go on too long. It may represent a turning point for Sandler, who has probably taken the uncouth man-child shtick as far as it can go; will he still be doing this stuff five years from now, when he’s 40? (Then again, at the time of The Jerk, who knew Steve Martin had a performance like The Spanish Prisoner or a book like Shopgirl in him?) I like Adam Sandler’s movies — comfortable, unpretentious, never dull — but I’m always more interested in his next movie.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

November 17, 2000

You don’t have to have a heart two sizes too small to recoil from the new live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What began life as a brief, elegant little work by the children’s-book master Dr. Seuss — and went on, nine years after its publication, to become a beloved Dr. Seuss/Chuck Jones TV perennial — is now a jumbled mess, art-directed to within an inch of its life, a folly to put alongside previous Christmas turkeys like Hook and Santa Claus: The Movie. Not since Battlefield Earth (admittedly, a much worse film) have so much effort and design gone into something so … tacky.

Boris Karloff narrated the 1966 cartoon, so it must have made sense to hire another movie boogeyman, Anthony Hopkins, to preside over the new film. Sounding remote and bored, Hopkins tells us about a place — Whoville — that exists inside a snowflake, and thanks to computer animation, we zoom right into that snowflake and into a panoramic view of Whoville in one unbroken shot, like a vision of smallness and largeness all at once. This should feel thrilling and magical, but, like so much else in the film, it’s so slick and artificial that you respond to it as a jaded connoisseur of special effects. (It’s also, of late, an overdone effect — it’s basically the kiddie-flick version of the opening shot of Fight Club.)

We skim over the Whos of Whoville; they include vibrant actors like Molly Shannon, Jeffrey Tambor, and Christine Baranski, smothered in pug-nose latex that throws their faces out of whack, like Jack Nicholson’s fake shnoz in Hoffa. One of them, a little girl named Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), is uncomfortable with the rampant consumerism of Whoville and also can’t understand why everyone in town is terrified of one figure — a hermit living on a mountaintop on the outskirts of Whoville, called the Grinch, who hates Christmas, Whoville, and Who-manity in general. Given the obnoxiousness of the shopaholic Whos, I can’t blame him.

Unless you’ve been living on a mountaintop yourself, you’ve heard that Jim Carrey plays the Grinch — “a role he was born to play,” we’ve been assured. I’m not so sure. Carrey gives it his all, and beneath Rick Baker’s supple make-up he manages to project his personality. That’s the problem. How the Grinch Stole Christmas unavoidably becomes a Jim Carrey vehicle, a cluttered stage upon which he can prance, pout, preen, and gnaw large holes through the scenery, inexhaustible and, finally, exhausting. He’s an ingenious comic actor — I thought he was robbed of an Oscar for Man on the Moon — but Carrey, with the help of an overexplicit script by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), gives the Grinch a neurotic, nobody-loves-me pathos that doesn’t quite fit. The Grinch shouldn’t have issues, for God’s sake — he’s just the Grinch, a Seussian Scrooge who’s just mean because … well, as Seuss said, “No one quite knows the reason.”

We find out the reason, all right; in flashbacks, we see poor little Grinch as a misfit child, ignored by the girl he loves. And Cindy Lou Who is certain the Grinch could learn to be kind if kindness were only shown to him. So we get an awkward sequence in which the Grinch is elected the town’s Cheermeister, which, like most of the scenes, has no beginning or end; it just arrives, putters around, and peters out. (The new subplots tacked onto Seuss’ original, far simpler tale add nothing but flab.) This is not director Ron Howard’s finest hour; he seems so in awe of the elaborate sets and the elaborate stylings of his star that he hardly bothers to shape the scenes — he must have figured Carrey and the set design would do his work for him.

Well, they did, and not to the movie’s benefit. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a garish rummage sale, in which Hollywood’s great Tasmanian Devil Jim Carrey must suffer the ultimate indignity: not the painful latex, not the crude slapstick, but the plot that requires him to learn to feel. If he isn’t careful he’ll turn into Robin Williams, who has gotten in touch with his emotions in so many movies that his emotions should really slap a restraining order on him. Comedians used to want to play Hamlet; now they want to be therapists. And the movie’s moral (Christmas is about more than presents) would mean more if we didn’t know that store shelves will be packed with Grinch merchandise from now till December 26.


November 14, 2000

Reviewing a movie like Unbreakable not only takes extraordinary skill at waffling (you have to bend over backwards not to reveal anything), it also requires a case of selective amnesia, because the movie is two-thirds of a remarkable atmospheric thriller. But a movie like this lives or dies on the strength of its ending, and in this case the prognosis doesn’t look good. Was the writer-director M. Night Shyamalan compelled to deliver a whammy on the level of the twist ending of his big hit The Sixth Sense? Hard to say, but it’s a bit of a non-whammy — not a dud, exactly, but a disappointingly conventional capper.

We’ll start from the beginning. Bruce Willis must have enjoyed working for Shyamalan last time, because he returns here as security cop David Dunn. We meet David on a train from New York to Philadelphia — a train that derails and crashes, killing the other 131 passengers but leaving David unscathed. His mirror image, it seems, is a brooding loner named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who coincidentally is often seen in reflections. Elijah has osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease (one in every 20,000 Americans is born with it) that makes the bones brittle and easily broken. Elijah, a devout comic-book reader, sees David as a parallel figure, an unbreakable man, perhaps even a superhero; then again, Elijah may also be just a lonely guy who’s read too many comics, and David assumes the latter to be true — even though he can’t remember the last time he was sick.

Shooting once again in the overcast, unflashy locations of Philadelphia, Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra work from a palette of blues and grays; the entire city has five o’clock shadow. And Shyamalan, as he did in The Sixth Sense, lets the scenes play out in calm, hushed intimacy. The domestic scenes involving David and his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn) and troubled son (Spencer Treat Clark) are done with exquisite tact and economy — you get the sense that Shyamalan really wants to make dramas with supernatural elements, not supernatural thrillers. Shyamalan takes us in close, picking up sad and angry whispers; his people almost never raise their voices. The actors, particularly Jackson, seem to relish the small, subtle notes Shyamalan encourages them to play.

Unbreakable takes pains to set up its gloomy world and then, like The Exorcist, introduces odd occurrences that are all the more disturbing because they feel real — they feel like the unbelievable-and-yet-it’s-really-happening events we’ve all experienced. An extended sequence in which David pays a visit to a dangerous man is a top-notch exercise in suspense and the glimpsed horrors of violence, even though it leads to a rather clumsy bit of fighting (then again, the clumsiness may be the point). The little moments are also terrific, as in a silent breakfast-table scene when David shows his son a newspaper article and, from the expressions on their faces, we can take our pick of several possible emotions.

The movie goes along so well and smoothly, and then takes a rollercoaster dive into … well, let’s just say this isn’t The Sixth Sense, whose ending flipped the entire story around and gave you that satisfying click when everything came together in your head. There’s no click here except the writer-director pulling the trigger of his plot’s unloaded gun. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that I like the concept of the ending — it does make sense — but it’s far too abrupt, and the use of “this is what happened next” titles at the end (usually reserved for movies based in fact) just makes us wish there were more movie, more of a wrap-up. Shyamalan, elsewhere so skilled at “show, don’t tell,” seems to forget that here. The film needed more beats, more scenes, a smoother ramp up to the end revelation.

I would rank Unbreakable with Sleepy Hollow, another hypnotic mood painting that seemed too eager to get to its chintzy Murder, She Wrote denouement. These directors should have more faith in their power to enthrall us; Shyamalan’s achievement here is that he creates a mood that seems all but unbreakable, only to break it.

Charlie’s Angels

November 3, 2000

Here’s a nice little surprise (if a $90 million movie can be called “little”). I went to Charlie’s Angels expecting to smirk through the whole thing; I didn’t expect to smile through it, but I did. To be sure, the movie will neither change the course of cinema nor move it forward one inch, but that’s not what it’s built for. Charlie’s Angels is a radiantly dopey Saturday-night escape hatch, without a thought in its head except to tickle you until you give in. You either go along for the ride or you don’t; I got on board fairly early and was happy to stay on.

Awkward geekette Natalie (Cameron Diaz), former punk Dylan (Drew Barrymore), and no-nonsense Alex (Lucy Liu) are the new, stylish Angels for the millennium, updates of the heroines of the critically reviled ’70s TV series. Like their forebears, the new trio work for the unseen Charlie (John Forsythe returns as the speakerphone voice) and thwart globe-threatening criminals with the help of their bewildered caretaker Bosley (a droll Bill Murray, keeping himself and us amused). Their mission involves a decadent tycoon (Tim Curry), a software whiz (Sam Rockwell), some technology that spells “the end of privacy” if it falls into the wrong hands, and, of course, a good amount of revealing and/or clinging outfits.

Never having followed the TV show, I assume a large percent of its appeal lay in its contriving to get its actresses in situations wherein their clothes were wet or scanty, or both. The movie does the same thing, but here it’s presented as another tool the Angels can use — distracting men with their babe-osity while planting a recording device or breaking into a computer room as impregnable as the one in Mission: Impossible. They also get to go through a variety of exotic disguises (sometimes exotic in the other direction — the scene of Barrymore and Diaz in male drag is pretty weird). I accepted the movie as a lighter-than-air girl-power adventure.

It helps that these Angels are gifted comedians. Diaz in particular breaks out; this is really her first funny performance (rather than being the straight woman in movies like There’s Something About Mary). Her Natalie fantasizes about knocking ’em dead on the dance floor (she so enjoys her dreams about it that she giggles in her sleep), and when she finally gets to show off her moves, the script puts a goofy spin on it while allowing Natalie to lose herself in her geek rhapsody. Lucy Liu gets a hilarious ball-busting scene posing as a sort of dominatrix/corporate consultant (“When was the last time you suggested something to your boss?” she demands of a roomful of terrified, fascinated programmers while wielding a cane), and Barrymore gets a neat tied-to-a-chair scene augmented by up-to-the-minute stuntwork.

The stunts, by the way, may remind you of the gravity-defying battles in The Matrix (though they have a lighter, more over-the-top touch here). That might be because the stunt coordinator here, Yuen Cheung-Yan, is the brother of The Matrix’s stunt guru Yuen Wo-Ping. The director, a rock-video vet who goes by the name McG (given name: Joseph McGinty Nichol), stages both the action and the sight gags so that we can process and appreciate them; he keeps this machine humming along pleasantly — it’s a clean, fast-paced, playful piece of work. It’s a strange movie year indeed when some guy named McG assembles a more entertaining spy caper than the master John Woo did with the brooding, boring Mission: Impossible 2.

Charlie’s Angels is by no means flawless. Tim Curry isn’t around enough; Tom Green, as Dylan’s creepy boyfriend, has two scenes — two scenes too many, some will say, including me. Yet there’s always something to look or laugh at, and any big Hollywood movie that can make room for the eccentricities of Sam Rockwell (fast becoming an actor to watch), Kelly Lynch (too little seen lately — she appears as Rockwell’s software partner), Luke Wilson as Diaz’ love interest, and especially Crispin Glover as a mute assassin with fussy thin eyebrows, certainly deserves better than some critics are handing it. What do they expect? It’s Charlie’s Angels. I expected less and got more, which might be a useful approach to action spectacles as we leave the ’90s behind.

Requiem for a Dream

November 3, 2000

Movie critics have little or no power, but they like to feel they do; one way they get their power fix is to anoint a director the Chosen One every couple of years. The last Chosen One was Paul Thomas Anderson, who made the gripping little debut Hard Eight and then followed it with the critics’ darling Boogie Nights. This year’s Chosen One is Darren Aronofsky, who made the gripping little debut π and has now followed it with the critics’ darling Requiem for a Dream. Both, I must report, are overrated cases of sophomore slump and been-there-rented-that.

Requiem for a Dream is based on a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., whose work has been translated to the screen once before, in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Having seen both films, I suspect Selby has a thing for drab, dribbling narratives about grungy, desperate losers; he also has a thing for women being sexually humiliated before an appreciative audience of horndogs, since both films end with such a scene. It could be that Selby’s style, in print, has mitigating wit and flavor that keep the material from tottering into modish masochism. On film, what we see is human wreckage marching to the grim beat of their own predetermined ruin. Whether the director is Last Exit‘s gloomy, hyperserious Uli Edel or the gloomy, hyperactive Aronofsky, Selby’s material needs humor — something it lacks onscreen, as yet.

The script, credited to Selby and Aronofsky, focuses on four cases of despair and burnout: lonely widow Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), whose devotion to a garish TV infomercial seems her only connection to life; her son Harry (Jared Leto), a young heroin addict; Harry’s friend and drug partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans); and Harry’s girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), whose parents, of course, gave her lots of money but no love. That’s more than enough misery for one movie, and Aronofsky, fracturing the narrative with clever tricks, does everything but run the film backwards and upside down to dislocate us, play with us, and keep our interest.

Unfortunately, he fails on the last count. Aronofsky strains to get an impressionistic drug experience — the highs, the lows, the anxiety over scoring the next fix — onto the screen. We may sit and think “That’s an innovative way to suggest inner chaos,” but we don’t feel it. And, frankly, a movie about a guy freaking out on a math equation (π) is more interesting than a movie about people freaking out on drugs, because we’ve seen Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to name just two recent drug films, and many others in the past. If anything, Aronofsky’s doomy, freaky, humorless style defeats his own purpose: It re-animates the dark romance of dissolution — it makes addiction look cool.

Ellen Burstyn almost rescues the movie. Sara, trying to lose weight in time to appear on her beloved TV show, gets hooked on uppers and downers prescribed by a rather inattentive doctor; she loses pounds, all right, and also her mind. Her story arc is tragic and moving, a sharply painful odyssey whose artistry and compassion mostly earn the pain it causes us (I could’ve done without her drug trip involving a killer fridge, though). Burstyn keeps us completely with her all the way through Sara’s bottoming-out; it’s a ferocious and courageous performance from an actress who’s never much cared about glamour (she doesn’t make addiction look cool).

By contrast, the other three actors are glamorous — and hollow. Marlon Wayans keeps his energy level up as Tyrone, but he’s bouncing off the blank wall known as Jared Leto, the most inexpressive pretty boy to slouch through movies since Christopher Lambert. Leto is pretty much a dud, and since the film centers on his character, it suffers badly as a result. And the male critics waiting for Jennifer Connelly to wake up and give the performance that will justify their laughable drooling over her (she is easy on the eyes, but so is a screensaver) will have to keep waiting, probably forever; Connelly is a dud, too. Requiem for a Dream is worth seeing for Ellen Burstyn and her unflinching descent into hell, but try not to think about how much better she is than the rest of the cast — or the movie she’s in.