Archive for August 2001


August 31, 2001

It’s probably best to think of O as a teen melodrama inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello — much as we view West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet — and not as a re-interpretation. To me, if you’re not speaking Shakespeare’s language, you’re not really doing the play. Shakespeare has been transmogrified so many times, though, that it seems senseless to object to a teen movie that uses Othello‘s basic narrative spine (nobody complained very much about Ten Things I Hate About You, which borrowed The Taming of the Shrew).

Those who love Othello probably won’t tolerate O, directed by Tim Blake Nelson and written by Brad Kaaya. Those who don’t feel one way or the other about the play or who don’t care for it — I myself consider it probably the most mechanistic tragedy of Shakespeare’s peak period — should settle in for a cleanly directed, passionately acted film about a prep-school basketball star, his supportive girlfriend, his duplicitous teammate, and a telltale handkerchief. As a modern-dress Othello riff, too, it beats the hell out of the Richard Gere-Andy Garcia cop thriller Internal Affairs (forgot about that one, didn’t you?).

Odin Jones (Mekhi Phifer), the star hoop playa in question, is beloved and respected by everyone — so beloved, in fact, that even a drug dealer hesitates to sell to him. The one notable exception, naturally, is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), Odin’s teammate, who gets overlooked (unlike Iago) not once but twice — Hugo’s own dad (Martin Sheen) is the team’s coach, who publicly says he loves Odin like his own son, and Odin shares his MVP award with another player, Michael (Andrew Keegan), the movie’s Cassio. So Hugo conspires to make Odin believe that the fair Desi (Julia Stiles), Odin’s true love, is making the beast with two backs with someone else’s back.

Tim Blake Nelson is an actor himself (you may have seen him in O Brother, Where Art Thou? playing back-up hick for George Clooney and John Turturro), and he’s a fine actor’s director, drawing out long, quiet scenes in which his cast can both relax and coil up. I particularly liked an early bed scene between Odin and Desi, both shirtless but chastely cloaked from the camera, as they tease one another; Phifer and Stiles build an erotic rhythm out of nothing but a few shared jokes. You may believe in their love moreso than you’ve believed it between Othello and Desdemona in most previous Othello films. Nelson also actually gets a performance out of Josh Hartnett, whose pinched poutiness for once works for him as the resentful Hugo. No longer acting out of “motiveless malignity,” Hugo isn’t the baffling evil puppetmaster Iago was, but Hartnett underplays his hand and keeps steady.

Nelson gets a little fancy at times, with repeated “O” visual motifs and recurring images of hawks and doves, but then he’ll also pull out a great set-up like an extended, quiet discussion between Hugo and his father, filmed in one long take from outside a window, in which Hugo is the only one visible. And Julia Stiles, completing her neo-Shakespeare trilogy (after Ten Things I Hate About You and Hamlet), continues to be well worth watching. A natural, laid-back actress, she makes her lines sound like a bemused shrug, so when she’s moved to anger — here, a small, amazing outburst when Odin brings his suspicions to her — it counts for something. Like most everyone else in the film (even Martin Sheen turns the volume down when necessary), Stiles comes up under the story rather than going over the top, which has been a mistake in some renditions of Othello. The movie is classy and dead serious, but it may not meet with the approval of either Shakespeare die-hards or teen audiences. For the rest of us, though, it works.

Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back

August 24, 2001

Watching Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, I was having too much fun to be sad; it was only afterward that I got a little melancholy. [NOTE: The reader might keep in mind that this review was written upon the film’s premiere in 2001, back when Kevin Smith was swearing up and down that there would be no more Jay & Silent Bob movies.] This, after all, is the final film of writer-director Kevin Smith’s “New Jersey Trilogy” — the fifth film, actually, which puts this “trilogy” on a par with Douglas Adams’ five-volume Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy.” No more Jay and Silent Bob? In retrospect, the enterprise does have the feel of a fond goodbye — characters or actors from Smith’s previous films (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma) keep turning up. But if it’s a farewell, it’s more of a farewell party. I have no idea how it’ll play for people unfamiliar with Smith’s work, but I rolled with it. Smith has earned this valentine to his fans.

Jay (Jason Mewes, as blinkered and profane as ever) and Silent Bob (Smith himself, as Jay’s large, eternal, near-wordless stooge) learn that two comic-book characters based on themselves — Bluntman and Chronic, which we saw the Ben Affleck and Jason Lee characters in Chasing Amy working on — are now the subjects of a major Miramax movie. Offended by the “Ain’t It Cool News”-type Internet posts by disgruntled losers predicting that the film will suck, Jay and Silent Bob take off for Hollywood to sabotage the Bluntman and Chronic movie (wherein they are being played by American Pie‘s Jason Biggs and Dawson’s Creek‘s James Van Der Beek, a towering indignity in itself).

The movie, like Smith’s Dogma — well, pretty much like every other Smith movie — is a loosely plotted excuse for creative invective, cheerfully crude humor, and, in this case, celebrity cameos a-go-go. Those who remember my observation in my Mallrats review — that Smith got Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee to do a cameo and would possibly find a way to get George Lucas in a future film — will be amused to see that Smith has achieved the next best thing here; Smith’s love of Star Wars, comic books, past collaborators (Affleck, Matt Damon, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Dante and Randal from Clerks), and even his family (his wife Jennifer and daughter Harley make appearances) suffuses the movie.

Does it help to be a fan — the kind of rabid Kevin Smith fan who visits religiously and leaves posts on its message board — to appreciate Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve seen all four previous Smith films, but not since they came out; this isn’t a movie that you need to prepare for with a Kevin Smith DVD marathon the day before. The motor of the movie is Jay and Silent Bob on the road, meeting colorful characters like a foxy jewel-thief quartet (Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, Smith’s wife, and Shannon Elizabeth, who falls for Jay’s dubious charms), a road-wise hitchhiker, a nun, an inept cop (Will Farrell), and even the cast of a beloved cartoon series — how devious of Smith to spoof one of next year’s movies before it even comes out.

At one point, Smith has Ben Affleck (in his Chasing Amy incarnation, that is — he also plays himself later on) ask why a creator would want to continue telling stories about a stoner duo like Jay and Silent Bob. This may be Smith’s way of saying he’s finally ready to move on (his next project is said to be a seriocomic look at parenthood, á la Chasing Amy, only without Jay and Silent Bob). I applaud his decision even as I fight pangs of sorrow that this is the last time the crass stoner and his beefy sidekick will grace the big screen (I’m sure they’ll continue to turn up in Smith’s comic books). But if this comedy duo had to go out, at least they’ve gone out with a bang. Kevin Smith even gets to have a lightsaber duel with Mark Hamill — how cool is that? (Though it’s kind of sad that Hamill has aged so poorly that the movie literally has to pause and point out that he is Mark Hamill.) By the time Jay and Silent Bob are sharing the stage with one of their favorite bands, you’ll either appreciate Smith’s desire to make his farewell to the boys as fun as possible, or you’ll be completely lost. My guess is, if you care enough about Kevin Smith to have read this far, you won’t be lost.

Ghosts of Mars

August 24, 2001

Cheese can be flavorful or rancid — the kind of cheese one sees on movie screens, as well as the edible kind — and John Carpenter, in his previous few films, had specialized in tasty cheese: unapologetic slices of genre entertainment for those who like it with edge and style. Vampires, despite its title, was really a grungy, bad-attitude Western, and even Carpenter’s much-maligned sequel/remake Escape from L.A. could be taken as a satire of itself. At his best, Carpenter works with a triple sense of intelligence, purpose, and fun.

Ghosts of Mars is not Carpenter at his best. It may very well be Carpenter at rock bottom. It lacks the three elements noted above: intelligence here is as sparse as breathable air on Mars, the movie feels pointless, and it’s almost completely humorless (except for the derisive chuckles earned by some of the dialogue — Carpenter had better jettison his script collaborator Larry Sulkis pronto). Ironically, Ghosts of Mars arrived the same weekend as Kevin Smith’s Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back; in both, well-loved cult directors pay tribute to themselves. But whereas Smith does it jokingly and self-deprecatingly, Carpenter does it half-heartedly, as if he had no energy left to do anything except lazily cannibalizing himself.

We’re on Mars, circa 2176; the red planet has been “terraformed” (made safe for human habitation) by Earth’s “matriarchal” society. (Does the whole matriarchy angle have any bearing whatsoever on what goes on in the movie? Nope, except to explain why many of the cops we see are female. The idea of a matriarchy is intriguing and completely ignored.) A bunch of cops, led by Natasha Henstridge, are assigned to transport a dangerous criminal known as Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). Ah, Carpenter and his bad-ass street names for anti-heroes: Napoleon Wilson (Assault on Precinct 13), Snake Plissken (the Escape films), and now Desolation, who turns out to be one of the few humans left alive in Chryse, the Martian town where he’d been stowed in jail.

Seems most of the humans have been possessed by Martian entities, who turn them evil, compel them to ravage their flesh, and force them to look like the extras in a bad Ozzy Osbourne video. Natasha and her cops (including Clea DuVall, Pam Grier, and Jason Statham) and Desolation and his fellow inmates join forces against the nasty Martian drones, who enjoy decapitating people and dangling the corpses upside down when they’re not sticking needles into their own flesh. Say this for the Martians — they know how to party.

This is recognizably a Carpenter film in theme (and plot) only. It feels like a shallow, made-for-cable wannabe-Carpenter ripoff. Anyone could have directed most of it; there’s a “sting” here and there as figures pop into the frame suddenly, but Carpenter’s detachment even extends to his musical score, which leans heavily on Anthrax crap-metal guitar riffs that dependably go whanngggwhonnggg every time the Martians or their stupid-looking leader (what is it lately with Carpenter and head villains who look like the lead singers of hair-metal bands?) show up.

The plot is entirely about how this ragtag group fights the siege, but Carpenter did it cheaper and better 25 years ago in Assault on Precinct 13. This time he also adopts a pointless flashback structure — sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks — and falls into the same self-spoiling trap that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 did: if you’re watching a story being told in flashback by a character in the present, you know that character survives! And here, you also figure everyone else dies except Ice Cube, who is first-billed on the posters. Carpenter, as always, gets the very top billing; the movie, on the screen as well as in the ads, is fully titled John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. A more apt title might’ve been Alan Smithee’s Ghosts of Mars.

The Deep End

August 8, 2001

Almost the entirety of The Deep End focuses precisely and a little obsessively on one event: the concealment of a corpse, and the aftermath. It’s all “What a tangled web we weave.” What sets the movie apart is the dynamic between the lead character, Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), and her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a musician in his late teens. Beau is gay, and has been hanging around the sort of predatory older men that make a mother nervous; you feel Margaret would be okay with his sexuality if he practiced it more prudently. As the movie begins, communication between the two is already at a standstill: he resents her questions, and she, not wanting to push the boy away, tries hard not to ask them.

All of this is fertile ground for either a thriller or a drama; The Deep End, written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, attempts to be both. One of Beau’s mates, a sleazy loverboy (Josh Lucas), turns up dead on the shore one morning. Margaret, assuming that Beau killed his lover during an argument, takes the body far away and anchors it down in shallow water (probably about 10 feet). The film slows down so that we process every step, every awkward development. For long stretches there’s no sound except the soothing waves lapping the shore. Each lap seems to drive the reality of the situation home a little deeper.

The Deep End is a tasteful and accomplished work, respectful of details and ornamented with a heroic performance by Tilda Swinton, whose Margaret has to get on with mundane daily life despite this incident and often seems close to cracking. You almost want to hear no more about the corpse — you want the movie to become about how Margaret and Beau will now interact, circling each other warily to see what the other knows, and we do get a bit of that. But their failure to communicate serves only to explain why certain things aren’t said at certain points, and there are a few too many scenes that bring interruptions at the worst time.

The corpse is recovered, and Margaret must now deal with a new wrinkle: a mysterious man, Alek (Goran Visnjic), seems to know a lot about the relationship between Beau and the dead man, and he wants an impressive sum of money in exchange for staying quiet. Alek is not what he seems, though, and in the person of ER hunk Visnjic he seems to come off as a heavy only as a formality; the women in the audience may hope for, and probably expect, a change of heart.

Margaret sets about scraping the money together, and we have to watch her do that for a few scenes. Other things happen, further complicating Margaret’s agenda — the movie could be called Bad Timing. The plot — based as it is on a novel (Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall) over 50 years old — begins to creak. The writers-directors get as much mileage as they can out of the curving roads and placid waters of Lake Tahoe, around which the action is set. Swinton gives us a harried, unglamorous woman until a key scene near the end, when Margaret finally puts on some makeup — possibly to appear more attractive to Alek — and nearly pops out at us (she’s even wearing a red overcoat).

The denouement is perhaps best not discussed, and not only to avoid spoilers. A second heavy (Raymond Barry), one of those looming foulmouths you expect to meet in movies less classy than this, enters the picture and brings a stale waft of B-movie air with him; for a while, the movie plays “Good Cop/Bad Cop” (it’s never clear whether the men are corrupt detectives or not). The climax slides into cheese — tactfully directed cheese is still cheese. The Deep End is finely crafted but more than a little overrated, perhaps understandable at the end of the typical dumb movie summer. Critics may be eager for any movie that gestures even slightly towards autumn’s promise of adulthood. See it for Tilda Swinton, and for the quietly accusatory sound of the waves flirting with the shore and retreating.

Ghost World

August 3, 2001

Hollywood, in its ceaseless search for material to bend to its own will, has looked to comic strips and comic books practically since its infancy. Trouble is — especially lately — they look at the wrong comics. While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Ang Lee’s Hulk might be fun, most comic-book adaptations are closer to the ineptitude of Batman Forever than to the clear-eyed vision of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. (Even Miller’s own sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, is like an oafish P. Diddy remix of its predecessor.) Hollywood sees shallow heroism and the potential for hollow spectacle in superhero stories; anything featuring actual human beings doesn’t appear on the radar.

The closest thing in Ghost World to an action sequence is a brief, fumbling scuffle between a nunchuck-wielding doofus and a scrawny record collector, and its source material — Daniel Clowes’ brilliant 1996-7 serial comic — didn’t even have that. Ghost World is the sort of “indie comic” few people besides serious comics readers have even heard of, and the movie version got similarly overlooked, when most of America was busy with Rush Hour 2 and Planet of the Apes. It centers on two teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, right after high-school graduation; its subject is that awkward, often painful transitional period between high school and whatever else (college, job), and how friendships forged in adolescence sometimes don’t survive the transition.

The movie, directed by Terry Zwigoff (who made 1995’s amazing documentary Crumb) from a script he wrote with Clowes, doesn’t focus as much on the Enid-Rebecca relationship as the comic did. Instead, they have fleshed out a character seen for only a few panels in the comic — Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, acerbic blues collector (much like the director himself) — and nudged the equally acerbic Enid (Thora Birch) into an odd and tentative friendship with him, while Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) grows up and apart from Enid, pursuing things like a job and an apartment half-heartedly, because it’s what you do after graduation.

Enid worships kitsch and outmoded pop — anything that isn’t mass-produced and mass-embraced. Thora Birch’s performance snaps into focus the moment Enid steps out of her bathroom and stops in her tracks upon hearing the dusty old blues number “Devil Got My Woman.” This song, finally, is something for Enid to be passionate about — the real thing. Birch is certainly amusing in her earlier, sneering moments, but it’s nothing she and others haven’t done before; but after Enid learns to appreciate that blues record as art and emotion, not as something to be ironically cherished because it’s “so bad it’s almost good,” Birch deepens into something like maturity. Her scenes with Steve Buscemi — whose Seymour, despite a couple of Buscemi-esque outbursts, is perhaps his gentlest and most honorable creation — are so delicately written and played that we almost don’t even miss Rebecca. (The deep-voiced Scarlett Johansson is fine as the rather dispassionate realist Rebecca, but the movie doesn’t develop Rebecca in much detail; her drift towards “responsible adulthood” takes place mostly offscreen. There’s a suggestion of a relationship between her and one of the girls’ favorite stooges, a mild clerk played with Cusackian befuddlement by Brad Renfro, but the movie has eyes only for Enid and Seymour. I’d complain more about that if there were anything in Birch’s and Buscemi’s scenes to complain about.)

Ghost World is something of an ode to arrested development. It just about fetishes the womblike clutter of Enid’s and Seymour’s bedrooms, festooned with the sort of “cool things that only I like” decor that indicates few visits from outsiders. At the same time, its vision of the characters’ universe — a plasticized sprawl of mini-malls and convenience stores, a ghost of the individualized town it might once have been — is fairly depressing. What to do in this ghost world? Buy into it like Rebecca (who displays an unhealthy respect for dull plastic cups and fold-out ironing boards), buy into it halfway like Seymour (who has a corporate job but nurtures his non-mainstream fixations), or reject it like Enid (whose response to Rebecca’s request to act like a presentable, mature apartment-seeker is to dye her hair green)?

I can imagine Ghost World directed by John Waters and starring Christina Ricci as Enid — it’s exactly the kind of role she might’ve taken a few years ago — but I doubt it would’ve had this mixture of hipster bemusement and postmodern melancholy. Much of the dialogue is verbatim from Clowes, who has an uncanny ear for how smart, sarcastic teenage girls talk, and Zwigoff brings his own acid to the table — a lot of the movie works as snide commentary on video stores, megaplexes, art-school pretensions, or theme-period diners (the film’s ’50s-theme eatery Wowsville violates its own reality with raucous hip-hop oozing out of the jukeboxes). All of this from a comic book — and not the usual comic book you see in theaters. Clowes’ Ghost World is a great short novel told in words and pictures; the movie he and Zwigoff have made from it is a great comedy-drama that doesn’t look or feel remotely like a “comic-book movie.” If more people appreciated stories like this, movies and comic books would be better off.

The Others

August 2, 2001

the-others-the-others-2001-film-32714469-1920-1080This is a tough one: Not only is it impossible to discuss much of The Others without spoiling it, it’s also difficult to explain what a quiet knockout it is, because The Others is the kind of movie that can die by overpraise. It’s a pale and fragile flower, a gothic rose in full bloom, and you’d better not see it with people who enjoy picking movies apart. It’s all mood — all shadow and hush and dread. I loved every slow, heavy, pregnant minute of it, loved having to lean forward to catch every fear-ridden whisper. In terms of becalmed supernatural quietude, this one makes The Sixth Sense look like a clown convention — and it comes from Dimension, of all studios, the Miramax branch famous for ADD-paced teeny-bopper slasher crap.

Nicole Kidman turns out to be ideally cast as Grace, a severe and forbidding woman who lives in a bleak, vast English manor with her two young children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). Kidman has seemed slightly off or neurotic in other roles (I didn’t buy her as a freewheeling sensualist in Moulin Rouge), but whatever’s inside her that always makes her seem skittish and distracted, as if she were always on the verge of being found out, works for her as Grace. Perhaps speaking in something closer to her own accent helps; perhaps the director, Alejandro Amenábar, is that rarity in horror films — an actor’s director.

Amenábar, a Spanish wunderkind who turns thirty next year, already has two impressive features under his belt: 1996’s Thesis, in which a college student is drawn into a mystery surrounding a snuff film (the theme is treated far, far better than it was in 8mm), and 1998’s Abre Los Ojos, which Cameron Crowe remade into a Tom Cruise vehicle (Vanilla Sky). Both are enthralling, De Palma-esque thrillers dealing with the mysteries of perception — is this reality or just reality as we experience it? — and The Others likewise builds to a twisting payoff. Moviegoers who like to announce after the movie that they guessed the surprise ending within five minutes probably shouldn’t bother with The Others, which, again, is more about atmosphere than about clever plot puzzles.

With The Others, Amenábar — whose previous two features are witty and contemporary — has gone back to old-school spooks and scares; the movie has more in common with James Whale than with Hitchcock or De Palma. Grace lives isolated in the fog until three people come to the house looking for work: Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), a nanny; Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), her mute helper; and Mr. Tuttle (Eric Sykes), a gardener. Grace hires them — her previous servants have run off without notice — and lays down the rules of the house: all doors and windows must be kept shut off from sunlight, which could kill her highly sensitive children. One of the children may be a bit more sensitive than Grace thinks — Anne keeps seeing “Victor,” the ghost of a little boy, along with his parents and an old woman.

That’s about all you should know going in, except that those who’ve seen Amenábar’s other films will appreciate references to them here — at one point, Anne says something that’s a direct quote from Thesis, and both this film and Abre Los Ojos make an innocuous object sinister (sorry, I can’t be more specific). Indeed, Amenábar’s talent is for finding the macabre in the everyday, bending “normal” into something more threatening. The Others may be too quiet and subtle and leisurely for modern audiences (then again, I felt the same way about The Sixth Sense), but Amenábar’s work here, and in the vertiginous Abre Los Ojos, is masterful; using nothing except sound and shadow, he can get an audience leaning forward so far that when the only shock in the movie comes — just a brief image of a face, that’s all — everyone recoils and shrieks. This director even composes his own scores (lush and menacing, heightening but never dominating); the only other filmmaker in this genre who wears so many hats so well is John Carpenter. Of course, Amenábar is no John Carpenter; he’s Amenábar, and a director to watch in his own right.