Archive for March 2002

Y Tu Mama Tambien

March 29, 2002

In the sex comedy Y Tu Mamá También, which has dominated the Mexican box office, two teenage boys facing the dusk of their high-school lives find themselves on a road trip with an attractive older woman. One of the boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal), comes from a much humbler background than the other, Tenoch (Diego Luna), whose family is ostentatiously wealthy; yet they have a lot in common, starting with a teenager’s devotion to raunchiness. With each other, they brag about what they do in bed with their girlfriends; the reality, as we see it in the film’s opening minutes, is a bit more flailing and abrupt. Their travelling companion is Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú), the wife of a pompous and pathetic writer. Perhaps close to thirty, she’s missed out on a lot of fun. For her own reasons, she takes the boys up on their offer to tag along for a weekend ride to a beach.

Y Tu Mamá También is a return to roots by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who came to America in the ’90s to direct such neo-classical eye candy as A Little Princess and Great Expectations. The new movie is considerably franker and rougher-edged; the MPAA, in its infinitesimal wisdom, refused to let the film slide with an R rating, thus depriving the American Julios and Tenoches in the audience of seeing a truthful but warmly composed reflection of themselves. (It’s permissible, of course, for teenagers to enter the MPAA-approved sex-equals-slaughterhouse world of Jason X.) As with all movies the MPAA apparently considers too explicit, Y Tu Mamá También is not too explicit — merely honest and unblinking. The sex scenes are generally played more for frantic comedy than for eroticism, which of course makes them more erotic.

Julio and Tenoch throw a bunch of junk into Julio’s borrowed car and scoop up Luisa at her antiseptic apartment. Something about the noisy squalor of the car, and the noisy enthusiasm of the boys, seems to unlock Luisa; something else does, too. Before the trip, we see her sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, and though I won’t reveal why, you can probably guess why; doctors are never mentioned in movies unless the very fact of them portends something grim. In any event, during the course of the journey, Luisa — whose husband has called her with the drunken, sobbing news that he’s just cheated on her — singles out the boys for sexual play, first Tenoch in her motel room, then Julio in the back seat of his car, then both at once at the end of a tequila-flavored night.

Many articles have bundled Y Tu Mamá También together with 2000’s ferocious triptych of love, Amores Perros, partly because of the angle that there’s something new and exciting going on in Latino cinema, partly because both films share an actor, the amiable and soulful Gael García Bernal. I don’t think Y Tu Mamá También is nearly as richly textured or as provocative as Amores Perros, but the comparison is bankrupt anyway; Y Tu Mamá También is to Amores Perros as, say, American Pie is to Pulp Fiction — both fine entertainments, but one generally seeks only to amuse, whereas the other is a fuller, denser package.

At times, Y Tu Mamá También tries to be deeper than it needs to be. At regular intervals, a narrator interrupts the proceedings to inform us in dispassionate voiceover about facts and events irrelevant to the action. The irrelevance says “art”; it’s a comment on mundane life marching on around the realized sex fantasy of the boys (and of the woman). And Luisa’s character arc is a little too “Seize the day” for my taste; the revelation of her secret shames and humbles the boys, who were only out for a fun getaway. Foreign films (the overpraised Amélie is another recent example) are threatening to become as glibly life-affirming as any American Chicken Soup for the Soul fable financed by Miramax in search of Oscars. Still, Y Tu Mamá También offers a shot of wise, freshly etched character comedy in a time when it’s desperately needed. Once again, a foreign director shows Hollywood what Hollywood should always be doing but has presumably forgotten how.

Panic Room

March 29, 2002

Technology is the star of Panic Room, in front of the camera and behind it. The action centers on an impenetrable chamber in an expensive brownstone, a room designed to withstand the most sophisticated and persistent home invaders. There’s one thing it can’t hold off, though: David Fincher’s camera. This director, who showed a flair for ominous, oppressive mood in Alien 3, Seven, and The Game, now treats the frame as his panting, frisky puppy. With the aid of computer animation, the camera rockets into keyholes, vents, even right through the handle of a coffee pot. I appreciate Fincher’s desire to keep a claustrophobic movie visually interesting, but all it does is scream “This is a movie — would you all please look at how much of a movie this is.”

Jodie Foster moves into the aforementioned brownstone with her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart, realistically deadpan and unimpressed by anything). They’re shown the “panic room” before they move in; the idea of it gives Foster the creeps. (This leads to the movie’s almost-lonely note of wit: Nursing buried-alive fears inside the panic room, Foster mutters “Ever read any Poe?” “No,” says friend Ann Magnuson — who really should be getting more work — “but I loved her last album.”) Naturally, Foster doesn’t think to stock the panic room with supplies (say, food or insulin for her diabetic daughter) or hook up the room’s independent phone line before moving in; naturally, a trio of thieves pick the duo’s first night in the house to break into it, in search of a safe containing rumored millions; naturally, said safe is inside the panic room.

Give screenwriter David Koepp some credit: He manages to keep this impasse plot — Foster and daughter, having taken refuge in the panic room, can’t get out; the thieves can’t get in — going for a while solely on tension. At certain points it’s as if Sam Neill and the two children from Jurassic Park (which Koepp adapted) hid up in that tree from raptors for two hours, except that these human raptors are considerably less toothsome. The ringleader is big, cuddly Forest Whitaker, who really shouldn’t be asked to play an imposing villain straight (that he was cast — brilliantly — as the lethal, virtuosic samurai in Ghost Dog was part of that movie’s joke); to be fair, though, he’s the one with a conscience, the thief who just wants to get the money without excess bloodshed. His partners, the jittery Junior (Jared Leto, amusing when he’s being bashed around) and the stone psycho Raoul (Dwight Yoakam, working his razorblade monotone to good effect), are less concerned with the welfare of their captives — and, fortunately, much less smart than any person onscreen, and only slightly less smart than many pieces of furniture onscreen.

You can judge, with a sigh, why Foster was attracted to this material (other than a residual urge to work with David Fincher, in whose The Game she was slated to play the Sean Penn role before dropping out due to pregnancy). She gets to play fierce protector — Clarice Starling as a mama, saving those lambs (or at least one) all over again. She doesn’t do a great deal we haven’t seen from her before, and it comes as absolutely no shock that she’s self-sufficient and resourceful enough to hold the villains at bay while keeping her daughter safe. The movie is a mere exercise for Foster, her proof that she can do pared-down mainstream stuff as well as anyone. We knew that. She can do pretty much anything as well as anyone. What I’d like to see from her, every decade or so, is a character with some flaws — maybe even, gasp, a villain. A woman as smart and formidable as Foster projects herself to be could play a female monster to reckon with, but where’s the screenwriter ready to write such a role?

And where’s David Fincher’s head these days? Whooshing through keyholes and coffee pots, I guess. Fincher, it’s clear by now, is a slickster in the Ridley Scott mold; few directors lay on the shadows and bass reverb as skillfully as he, but after five films, what does he have to say? From the evidence, possibly that any person with the ill luck to be trapped in a David Fincher design had better prepare to bloody himself or herself on the long way out of it. Panic Room can be taken as a deeply sick and depressing joke on Fincher’s own predicament — his style is his panic room, and whether he ever breaks out depends on how richly he’s rewarded for staying inside it. 3

Death to Smoochy

March 29, 2002

Not even a week after the Oscars, here comes Death to Smoochy to pop Hollywood’s balloon of self-satisfaction. If you groaned when Tom Cruise kicked off the Oscar show by declaring that we all now need Hollywood’s brand of fantasy “more than ever,” this dark, bitter, frequently outrageous little item is for you. Now more than ever, we need to be questioning what’s fed to us — as news, as official government policy, and as entertainment. Especially entertainment for kids, which often seems to be more about indoctrinating young minds into consumerism than about actual amusement or, perish the thought, education.

Popular kiddie-TV host “Rainbow” Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is in trouble: After he’s caught taking parental bribes to ensure kids a slot on his show, he falls into disfavor and squalor. The network, casting about for an inarguably “squeaky-clean” replacement for Randolph, settles on the gentle idealist Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), who has developed a cheerfully didactic purple-rhino character named Smoochy. A good match for the network’s newly prudish standards of ethics — he has no skeletons in his closet, nor even probably a closet — Sheldon creates headaches for the fatcats anyway. He can’t get with the program — he doesn’t realize that his function is to look stupid, be harmless, and sell products. He actually wants to entertain and enlighten children. Which makes him maybe the biggest deviant among the many deviants recruited as kid’s-show hosts by the network.

Directed by that cackling goblin of pop culture Danny DeVito, from an acrid script by Adam Resnick that never met an elaborate string of vituperation it didn’t like, Death to Smoochy is only marginally about what its ads suggest — the dethroned Randolph, crazed with jealousy and rage, brainstorming violent revenge on Sheldon. Even without Randolph, Sheldon has his share of enemies, including a shadowy big boss of the “Parade for Hope” charity (Harvey Fierstein), who wants in on the Smoochy money train. But Sheldon also makes some friends, including network exec Catherine Keener, who turns out to have a soft spot for men in rhino suits, and a punchy ex-boxer (the rambunctiously cartoonish Michael Rispoli) who finds a home on the show as Smoochy’s “cousin Moochy.” Death to Smoochy turns out to be about the struggle to maintain integrity in the face of success.

The movie is certainly funny enough, particularly when focusing on Edward Norton, who throws everything he’s got into the naive, soy-dog-eating Sheldon, or Robin Williams, clearly enjoying this new grubby anti-Patch Adams stage of his career. Sheldon’s heartfelt Smoochy songs (including a ditty called “My Stepdad’s Not Mean, He’s Adjusting”) are dead-center whacks at touchy-feely kiddie tunes, and there’s a Smoochy-on-Ice number, in tribute to a fallen friend, that manages to be moving and hilarious at the same time. The movie also redefines “dark comedy,” literally — often it appears to have been photographed at midnight during a power outage, the only apparent light source being the characters lit from within by hatred and fury.

Where it falls a little short, though, is in making Sheldon/Smoochy too likable — we’re set up to want a happy ending for him, when we should get an outcome closer to the promise of the title. Adam Resnick’s script feels as though it possibly used to be a lot darker in its final act. Putting a happy face on the finale probably won’t get many more people in to see the movie, but it won’t satisfy those who like their black comedy poisonous to the last drop, either. I’m reminded of how Danny DeVito had the guts to end The War of the Roses with Kathleen Turner rejecting Michael Douglas’s final gesture of reconciliation. Such touches are what make twisted comedies live on in memory — what set them apart. Death to Smoochy is a more conventional affair, with some refreshing mean moments. I was happy enough with it through most of it, but are we living in such insecure times that even dark, violent comedies now have to end on an up note?


March 26, 2002

It’s April 1994, for no particular reason except that a Seattle vigil for the then-recently-deceased Kurt Cobain figures in the journey. Pool cleaner Jared Leto gets caught boinking a married woman. Said woman’s husband sends goons after Leto to break his feet. Leto takes off with lifelong stoner buddy Jake Gyllenhaal for, yep, Seattle. Along the way they pick up drifter Selma Blair. Sadly, my admiration for Gyllenhaal and Blair did not compensate for my knee-jerk aversion to Jared Leto. All three of them are ill-served here, though Leto plays on the level of the material and doesn’t come off too horribly. For the most part, I just wished I were watching Jake and Selma in a better film.

Highway is aggressively overdirected, with lots of “Look how cool this angle is” and “See how tricky my editing is.” Scripter Scott Rosenberg, also credited as a producer, has seen better days. It’s his dialogue that keeps the proceedings marginally amusing, but the movie is fundamentally aimless, and the actors embody quirks, not characters. For instance, the notion of giving a character a goofy name with a backstory (Gyllenhaal’s character is named Pilot because his mom boffed a pilot but never learned his name) was lame when they did it in another wannabe-Quentin road movie, Feeling Minnesota.

The supporting cast offers some divertissements. John C. McGinley has a couple of decent moments as Johnny the Fox, a dreadlocked drug dealer the guys befriend. Jeremy Piven, as usual, rocks the house as another dealer; he barges into the movie, trashes the place, and exits shrieking with laughter. (He has a later, brief scene, but Piven fans will fixate on his longer scene.) Yet even Piven is sabotaged by fancy editing (jump-cuts, etc.) that draws your attention to the “directing” and away from his frenzied performance — his is the sort of scenery-chewing turn that needs to play out in long takes, so that he can set his own gonzo rhythm. Frances Sternhagen, always welcome, appears in the movie’s most pointless passage, in which the trio go to see “The Boy” — a congenitally deformed guy Gyllenhaal becomes obsessed with.

Is there really any justification for setting this in the days after Cobain’s suicide? Not especially. It’s still a bit early for 1994 nostalgia movies, and when you think of what other movies came out that same year — *ahem*PulpFictionNaturalBornKillers*cough* — that just kick this film’s ass and take its bike…

Well, Highway even sucks compared to the films Tarantino didn’t direct; look at True Romance, which is pretty much as aimless as this movie yet has no shortage of great scenes and juicy confrontations for actors to dig into and for viewers to talk about for years. Nobody will be talking about Highway for years, of that I’m quite sure. The difference between real Tarantino and faux-Tarantino like this is the difference between genuine, balls-out, sharply written fun and a pallid, soulless imitation of same. Toss this one in the same shitcan as 2 Days in the Valley and The Big Hit.


March 24, 2002

CQ could’ve been fun — in fits and starts it is fun — but this patchwork movie by Roman Coppola (the most recent of Francis Ford Coppola’s heirs to take up the filmmaking mantle, after Sofia and The Virgin Suicides) isn’t ultimately about anything except its own fondness for the era.

For the first time since Spanking the Monkey, Jeremy Davies actually gets top billing. Problem is, almost ten years later he’s still giving the same cringing-ectomorph performance, here as a film editor named Paul who’s simultaneously working on a nonsensical Barbarella-like sci-fi extravaganza (Codename Dragonfly) and on his own sort of film diary, in which he films himself and girlfriend Élodie Bouchez in grainy black and white, trying to capture intense realism. He’s basically a young John Cassavetes if Cassavetes had ever worked for Dino De Laurentiis.

CQ (if any readers know what the hell the title means other than sounding like “Seek You” and being a message momentarily flashed on a computer screen in Codename Dragonfly, please fill me in) can fairly be described as ’60s cinema in a duck press. Paul could be Cassavetes or any number of other artsy-realism artistes (Haskell Wexler, Albert Maysles, etc.) who emerged around the same time. Codename Dragonfly‘s Italian producer (Giancarlo Giannini) is obviously De Laurentiis; the sci-fi flick’s original director (Gérard Depardieu) might be a what-if version of Godard (who did make his own sci-fi movie, Alphaville); the hotshot American director (Jason Schwartzman) hired to replace Depardieu might be a tip of the hat to any of the up-and-coming filmmakers who worked for Roger Corman and would’ve come in for a quick polish on a cheesy sci-fi flick just for the experience (someone like, say, Francis Ford Coppola, back in the day).

The central problem is that Codename Dragonfly — with its gorgeous Dean Tavoularis design, and its gorgeous Mother Nature design in the person of Angela Lindvall, who plays the babelicious agent Dragonfly as well as her “real-life” portrayer Valentine — is simply more fun than the surrounding material. If Roman Coppola wanted to recreate bubble-headed ’60s Euro-eye candy, he should’ve gone ahead and done it. But we keep going back to Paul and his domestic problems and his never-even-close-to-requited feelings for Valentine. It’s as if the first Austin Powers movie had been half Austin Powers and half about a film editor working on Austin Powers.

Aside from the Codename Dragonfly material, it’s a treat to see two European giants, Giannini and Depardieu, barking at each other. Schwartzman (the director’s cousin) seems at times to be channeling Robert Evans by way of Roman Polanski (check out the chintzy vampire flick he’s shooting) and enlivens his scenes. Dean Stockwell stops by as Paul’s dad for a fairly meaningless bit that still scores because it’s Dean Stockwell. Angela Lindvall has an unaffected appeal in her moments as Valentine. And the movie looks and sounds (props to Mellow, who did the score, which can only be described as “groovy”) pretty cool. But there’s nothing much to the film besides its pretty-coolness. Fundamentally it goes nowhere and says nothing.

I’m willing to bet Francis passed down at least some talent to his offspring. Qualms about CQ and The Virgin Suicides aside, these movies are not hackwork. But they do self-consciously exist in some dead zone between art and fluff, as if the royal son and daughter were afraid to commit to either extreme. Sofia and Roman both respect actors, and they both have an eye for arresting images. Someday one of them may contribute a work of art to stand alongside the best work of their father. When their eye for material equals that of their father, that day will come.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

March 22, 2002

The part that always gets me is when the dog trots onto the ramp of the spaceship, wanting to join his new friend and not understanding why he can’t. That moment remains unchanged in the new 20th-anniversary version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and everything else lovable and honorable in it has likewise been left intact. The classic moments are still there, large and small:

– The subtly enchanting visual joke of several E.T.s frightened by the hoot of a nearby owl and flashing their red heartlights simultaneously;

– The later echo of this joke when government agent Keys (Peter Coyote) and his cadre of alien-chasers hear the mournful distant bleat of the newly marooned E.T., and all of the men simultaneously point their flashlights at the sound;

– Elliott (Henry Thomas) and older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) sifting through the garage for junk to use for E.T.’s communication device, and finding one of their dad’s old shirts, sniffing it wistfully. “Old Spice,” says Michael. “Sea Breeze,” Elliott corrects him immediately;

– The absolutely perfect cameo of Yoda, in the form of a kid in a Yoda Halloween costume, and E.T.’s perfectly reasonable response to same;

– The other part that always gets me, when the doctors try defibrillating the fading E.T. back to life and Steven Spielberg cuts to Gertie (Drew Barrymore, all the more charming here since we’ve seen her mature) crumpling into shocked, helpless tears — you could swear you saw what she’s flinching at, but you didn’t.

I’ve bitched considerably, in private and public, about Spielberg tampering with his masterpiece, but the new version turns out to be more or less the same in spirit and event. The FBI guys now have walkie-talkies instead of guns, but why did they need guns in the first place? To shoot a group of kids (not to mention a sickly, benevolent alien) in broad daylight? E.T.’s facial expressions have been digitally flexed up a bit, but usually not to the point of distraction. There’s a new scene involving E.T.’s dip in a bathtub, which does add to the movie — it points up E.T.’s froglike nature and gives new context to the later scene where Elliott gets psychically drunk and delivers all the classroom frogs from dissection (the only scene I’ve always found a bit too forced and slapsticky, right down to Elliott stealing a kiss from future Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak).

E.T. is the gentlest of fantasies, yet Melissa Mathison’s drum-tight script still finds room for the kids’ exasperated mother Mary (Dee Wallace), realistically bitter about her husband dumping her for some bimbo. The suburban-California milieu is peerlessly detailed — the scene of Michael and his friends harassing each other over a game of Dungeons & Dragons is very 1982, but if you were a boy around that age back then, you probably sat at that table at one point or another. Into this disorganized, comfortable-but-on-the-verge-of-angst household waddles a gray and wrinkled stranger, who could be Christ or a wizened visiting uncle.

Where does the movie fit into Spielberg’s ouevre? Some would say he peaked here, and then went into a decade-long phase of unrequited longing for the respect of adults. (His next feature after E.T., not counting his execrable contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie, was the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but I enjoy that film precisely because of its loud unimportance; it’s just Spielberg larking away.) But if Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s masterpiece of the ’90s, and either Jaws or Close Encounters (take your pick) was his time-capsule entry for the ’70s, then E.T. is unquestionably his seminal ’80s work. Certainly none of his subsequent dabblings in fantasy — especially not that sad, sad specimen known as A.I. — come anywhere near E.T.‘s purity of vision and clarity of purpose. You could call it manipulative, which it is; you could call it a domesticated, Disneyfied account of unearthly life, which it also is. But scene for scene, you understand why even the acerbic Pauline Kael approvingly called it “a bliss-out.” At heart it’s a very small movie about two friends in a room; the movie is homey and warming in its modest scale, and looks that much better next to most of its overblown 2002 competition.

Unlike George Lucas’s Greedo-shoots-first redux of Star Wars, Spielberg’s second draft of E.T. does no special harm to our memories, and if you’ve got young ones who weren’t around in 1982 you can safely bring them to this edition without fretting that they’re missing the version you fell in love with. Henry Thomas still gives one of the most believable and unaffected child performances on film, Spielberg’s technical mastery and emotional restraint are still almost unsurpassed, John Williams’ score still knows when to perk up and when to chill out and listen to the dialogue, Gertie still introduces E.T. to the world of crossdressing, Michael still whacks his head when jumping for joy, E.T. still turns his nose up at the potato salad and dumps it on the kitchen floor to the delight of the dog, the dog still heads up that ramp to be with his friend, and that still gets to me after twenty years.

Blade II

March 22, 2002

As pretty much the only African-American actor with an action-film franchise in which race is never much of an issue, Wesley Snipes — who also co-produced 1998’s original Blade as well as this sequel — has understandably latched onto Blade, the cool and hard-boiled vampire slayer, as his shot at longevity after too many movies like Murder at 1600. He’s certainly unimpeachable as a spring-loaded bad-ass in the Blade films, but does anyone else miss the days when Snipes used to take chances and show his formidable stuff as both a comic and dramatic actor? Doesn’t he miss those days?

In Blade II, Snipes lightens up a little, but just a little; occasionally he lets Blade smile, but usually only when someone is fool enough to start shit with him. Blade still has little discernible personality; he wanders into dens of vampiric iniquity as if he belonged there (well, he sort of does — he’s half-vampire by birth) and cuts loose with state-of-the-art weaponry — including but not limited to his own body — until he’s the only one left standing. If you’re going to have an indomitable stick as a hero, you need quirky, fallible foils as his back-up, preferably played by quirky, infallible character actors; but these films only have eyes for Blade.

The sequel picks up Blade as he’s rescuing his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) from the clutches of some Eurotrash vamps who’ve been keeping the old guy in a tank for years. This hasn’t much brightened Blade’s views of vampires, but soon enough some ninja-clad vamps are coming to him with a truce and a proposition. A particularly ugly breed of bloodsuckers known as Reapers (derived from a mutated new strain of the vamp virus) have been decimating the vampire population. “Good,” Blade might say. But the Reapers will also kill anything else that moves, including humans. Not so good.

Blade grudgingly signs on to help his former foes, aligned in a group cheerfully dubbed “the Blood Pack” and including the intimidating Ron Perlman as a bruiser named Reinhardt and the stylish-looking non-actress Leonor Varela as Nyssa, a vamp with impressive anatomical knowledge (she dissects a Reaper as if she did this every day) and a growing attraction to the movie’s star and co-producer. Once the exposition is out of the way, the majority of Blade II devotes itself to fight scenes between the Blood Pack and the Reapers. The movie has accordingly been compared to the Alien films, particularly Aliens, in the way it pits our heroes against hordes of relentless insensate evil. Here and there it’s startlingly well-mounted, but overall the movie is no more or less than a fancy shoot-’em-up.

Critics who should know better have placed gifts at the feet of director Guillermo del Toro, who has at least two fine horror films to his credit (1993’s Cronos and 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone). Del Toro is being praised here for bringing talent and brio to an action-horror sequel and then dropping most of the talent. A lot of what del Toro does here is indistinguishable from what any hotshot MTV director might do with the same script; there’s much computer-aided leaping about, much flashing of sharp objects and bodies flying apart into orange sparks. The Reapers are spectacularly hideous creations, but del Toro doesn’t find the beauty in that ugliness (as a great horror director might). The opposition here are just gross things to be eradicated.

Blade II is stupidly watchable, just as its predecessor was; these movies are obviously meant to be ass-kicking urban horror pieces, with no mystery or dread, just one set-piece after another in which Blade — and, by extension, the star and co-producer — is continually shown to be the coolest guy around, and also the most testosteronal. Snipes gets his voice way down low, enunciating with a hipster’s idea of machismo, yet again he doesn’t seem aware of the joke in it. Is Wesley Snipes afraid people still remember his drag-queen turn in To Wong Foo? He needs to get away from the latex and leather and get some real acting work, and his director needs to stop goofing around with sequels based on comic books. Blade II is passable for what it is, but what it is seems well beneath most of the participants.

Ice Age

March 15, 2002

scrat3Normally I don’t much go for computer-animated movies (Antz was an exception), but Ice Age — released, ironically, by 20th Century-Fox — is about as close as digital feature-length toons have come to the glory days of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes. This is really the first computer-generated movie I can recall that couldn’t have been done almost as well in stop-motion, and its technique doesn’t feel like the tail wagging the dog — it wears its visual virtuosity lightly. Perhaps all this is only a roundabout way of saying that Ice Age, almost alone among these bits-and-bytes things, is funny enough to win me over.

Take Scrat, the squirrel-rat mix instantly beloved by anyone who saw him exerting himself in the ads (that’s only the beginning of his trials in the movie). Scrat, easily the runaway star of Ice Age, is a wonderful wordless creation — an icon of mute, hapless indomitability to rival Wile E. Coyote. Every time he shows up toting his cherished acorn, the audience perks up, and the movie always rewards our anticipation. Resilient and single-minded, Scrat exists to be trampled and defeated. It’s terrible to say this, but Scrat is probably the best character we’ve gotten in any new movie during this wretched first quarter of 2002. You understand exactly what he wants, you want him to succeed, and you laugh when he doesn’t.

The main throughline of Ice Age is a rather routine quest. An infant boy has been separated from his village by a pack of vengeful sabertooth tigers. Enter Manfred (voice by Ray Romano), a slow-moving, jaded mammoth, and Sid (John Leguizamo), a motormouth sloth. The baby shows up at their feet; they determine to bring him back to his people. This is all Manfred needs: sighing heavily with disgust, he’s already been pushed near the limits of his patience by the craven and incurably annoying Sid. There’s a bit of Shrek-and-the-Donkey dynamic in this, but Shrek was far from the first movie to work that angle, and the perpetually dissatisfied-sounding Romano and the eager, extroverted Leguizamo make a likable team. Sighing even more heavily, Manfred agrees to help the baby.

Complicating matters is the sabertooth Diego (Denis Leary), charged by his leader with the task of capturing the infant alive. Diego hooks up with the trio, offering to lead them to the baby’s family, but really plotting to lure them into an ambush. Of course, he gradually grows to like his companions, setting up a genuine redemptive character arc — in a computer cartoon for kids? This might not have worked so well if not for the voice of Leary, who specializes in characters who growl and snarl but grudgingly let themselves soften into compassion. When a sourball like Denis Leary goes human, it counts for something, even if he’s a tiger.

There are a couple of fine setpieces — a whizzing trip through a mountain of ice (featuring some good sight gags involving things preserved in the ice), a volcanic eruption that forces our heroes to hop from peak to peak. The baby toddles along, giggling and cooing, saved from terminal cuteness by his Icelandic features — he looks like a miniature Björk and stares at everything with fascinated incomprehension. There’s a moral — “Work together and watch each other’s back” — but it isn’t pressed too hard. The animation has a deadpan-skittish quality; the comic timing harks back to Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. There’s hardly a whiff of Disney anywhere near Ice Age, a vast relief for the Mouse-phobes among us.

There’s a slight, somewhat disquieting subtext: At least two of the heroes, Manfred and Diego, are helping a species that has been known to decimate their kind. Except for the burbling baby, mankind is not viewed fondly in Ice Age; it’s the critters’ story, and eventually a detente of sorts is reached between the species — not that it ultimately did the mammoths or the sabertooths any good. When the heroes wander off towards the frozen horizon, we may note with some sadness that two-thirds of the group wouldn’t be around much longer. But then Scrat is brought on for one last bit of business, and all of that is forgotten.

The Laramie Project

March 9, 2002

Christina-in-The-Laramie-Project-christina-ricci-17722501-853-480How to forge art from tragedy? One way is to forget art and let tragedy speak for itself. In The Laramie Project, an Off-Broadway play and now one of the many Original Movies that have made HBO a dramatic force, the playwright Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project did just that. Kaufman and his interviewers journeyed to Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of the vicious murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, beaten and left for dead by two homophobes who’d hoped to “scare him straight” — teach him a “lesson” about hitting on God-fearing men. The goal of the project was to collect the townspeople’s thoughts and memories, which often conflicted and painted a portrait of Anywhere, USA.

The result is a fascinating chorus of outrage and sadness, hatred and hope; pretty much every voice we hear is authentic, taken from actual interviews. The form isn’t quite simulated documentary — it’s closer to what the playwright Anna Deavere Smith does when she takes disparate viewpoints of an event (the L.A. riots, etc.) and turns them into a performance piece. Whereas Smith plays all the roles herself, though, The Laramie Project recruits actors to stand in for the real-life interview subjects. As captured on film now, it is — in addition to its other qualities — a feast for fans of indie actors: Steve Buscemi, Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo, Laura Linney, and Amy Madigan are only a fraction of the surprising talent here.

Kaufman (played here by Nestor Carbonelli) and his crew of New York theater interlocutors step tentatively into Laramie, encountering some resistance, some cooperation, and a lot of shame. “Hate is not a Laramie value,” announces a red-lettered sign on the town’s main strip. Many of the people want to put the Shepard case behind them and go back to a time when the name of their home was not synonymous with “hate crime.” A frequent refrain is that the town motto is “Live and let live,” but others in Laramie might amend that to “Live and let live, as long as you’re heterosexual or closeted.”

The work is built on great voices, not necessarily enlightened ones: Laura Linney plays a housewife who can’t understand why a big fuss was made over Matthew’s death when people are murdered every day (apparently nobody told her that people tend not to be murdered just because they’re heterosexual); James Murtaugh embodies the notorious, grotesque Rev. Fred Phelps, who attends the funerals of gay people and waves placards like FAGS BURN IN HELL. This isn’t a religion-bashing project, though: Father Roger Schmit (Tom Bower) speaks movingly for an end to homophobic violence and wishes that the murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, could become society’s “teachers” — he wants to learn where simple distaste or disapproval crosses the line into homicide.

Like HBO’s other prestigious gay-interest movie And the Band Played On, this one has attracted a slew of high-powered talent — Christina Ricci contributes a well-drawn, atypically ungloomy performance as a self-described “little lesbian”; Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek scores big as the good-hearted bartender who was one of the last to see Matthew alive; Amy Madigan is tough and vulnerable all at once as the police officer first called to the scene; Clancy Brown, usually stuck in bad-guy roles (stomping prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption, for instance), shows a softer side as a cop quietly appalled at the notion of gay-bashing.

But the heart of the movie belongs to one of its least-known actors in a bare minimum of screen time — Terry Kinney, a veteran of the network’s prison drama Oz, stands up in court near the end as Matthew’s grieving father. Dennis Shepard’s speech in tribute to his son (“my hero”) and in excoriation of the killers — and his argument for not giving his son’s murderers the death penalty, even though he believes in capital punishment and would like to watch them die — is astonishing in its uncalculated simplicity; by the time he gets to the part about how Matthew didn’t die alone — the sights and sounds of his beloved town were with him — the words become poetry, and Kinney brings it home without fuss or grandstanding. It’s moments like these — and many lesser, though scarcely less moving, sequences — that demonstrate how voices can be collected into art.

40 Days and 40 Nights

March 1, 2002


“Whenever the camera’s on him, he purses his lips and looks grim.” I wrote that line, rather uncharitably, not long ago about Josh Hartnett’s performance (or lack thereof) in Black Hawk Down. Having now seen Hartnett in 40 Days and 40 Nights, I can only conclude that that’s what happens when you take an actor built for romantic comedy and put him in a war movie. In this fairly gimmicky but entertaining fluffball, directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers) from a script by Robert Perez, Hartnett connects with the audience humbly and simply; it’s like the old movie cliché wherein a big bruiser turns out to sing beautifully. Hartnett is a surprise; so is the movie, which looks dumb in the ads but, like American Pie, manages to be both raunchy and sweet.

Hartnett is Matt Sullivan, a website designer gnawing at his post-breakup wounds; his ex (Vinessa Shaw) has wasted no time getting engaged to some jerk, and Matt throws himself into meaningless flings until he starts imagining that his bedroom ceiling is cracking open. Taking this as a metaphor for the emptiness he feels inside, Matt anguishes over his libido in hushed conversations with his brother (Adam Trese), who listens with a not entirely sympathetic ear, since he also happens to be a priest. Leaving the confessional one day, Matt hits upon an idea to cleanse his soul and body of lust — giving up all sexual gratification for Lent. Of course, this time of trial is when he meets the perfect woman, Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), who gets to play the usual male role of waiting for a romantic partner to put out. (As a cyber-nanny, she probably looks at more porn daily than he does.)

As I said, 40 Days and 40 Nights rests on a gimmick, but then so did The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a previous (and equally smart and satisfying) romantic comedy directed by Michael Lehmann. It’s clear that Lehmann is a journeyman filmmaker who’s only as good as the script (he was the one with the misfortune to get handed the keys to Hudson Hawk, and his last movie, four years ago, was the Billy Crystal flop My Giant). But if Hartnett was born for romantic comedy, so was Lehmann, who guides the characters with a light and sensible touch. The scenes at Matt’s workplace, full of snide web geeks placing bets on when Matt will end his abstinence, crackle with wit; the coworkers in this movie feel like people who work with each other every day (not an easy feat — many movies fail in this regard).

As the film goes on, Matt faces steadily worsening challenges to his will power; a trio of office vixens (with rhyming-bimbo names Candy, Mandy and Andie) all but throw themselves at him, not necessarily to win the office pool but, interestingly, because they’re incensed that the Lysistrata-like power of withholding sex, which usually rests with women, now rests with him. Matt’s hapless boss (Griffin Dunne) thinks it’s a great idea — if he denies his frigid wife sex, she’ll be crawling all over him! — but it only works for Matt, perhaps because he’s genuine about it; he’s not withholding as a tactic, and maybe it’s one of the few meaningful things he’s done as an adult that aren’t meant to get a woman into bed.

Michael Lehmann has a knack for intensely erotic hands-off sex scenes; fans of Truth About Cats and Dogs will remember two from that film — one involving food, the other involving a phone — and he’s got another one here, when Matt and Erica, without touching each other, make the most of an orchid petal. Lehmann also makes a city bus — where the couple spend their first date — seem like a bizarrely romantic backdrop. In Matt’s frenzied final hours of Lent, when he can’t turn around without seeing something designed to keep him tumescent (at one point he fantasizes splashing down into a sea of breasts), the movie leans towards easy crowd-tickling gags but never loses its core — a former horndog learning to live, and love, without sex, and the exasperated woman who happens to meet him while he’s learning.