Archive for April 2002

Jason X

April 26, 2002

Has it really been 22 years since the saga of Jason Voorhees began? I was ten years old in the summer of 1980, when the original Friday the 13th promptly became the gotta-see-it movie among teens and preteens. Never mind that the killer in the original text was not Jason but his grief-maddened mother; a campfire legend was born, and Jason would return in eight subsequent movies (well, seven, if you don’t count 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, wherein the killer turned out to be a psychotic copycat) to slice and dice sexually active teenagers.

If you detect a bit of fondness in my tone, you’re not mistaken. Yes, the Friday the 13th movies are lower-common-denominator slasher entries whose only nod to variety from film to film is the method of murder. Yes, Jason is a cheeseball recap of Michael Myers — Friday the 13th was neither the first nor last rip-off of Halloween, simply the most lucrative. And yes, while Halloween may have popularized the slasher-film “fuck and die” motif, the Friday the 13th series patented it. I know all this, and yet my affection for all things lame and bad about the ’80s inevitably extends to Jason Voorhees and his escapades at Camp Crystal Lake. Like it or not, Jason is part of my (and maybe your) youth, and part of horror-movie history. Earlier generations had Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein monster; we Gen-Xers had Michael, Freddy … and Jason.

So it’s with a mixture of exasperation (“You gotta be kidding me,” says a character in the film, and most in the audience would echo her) and gladness that I greet Jason again, after a nine-year hiatus, in Jason X, which has been gathering shelf dust for a couple of years now. Is the movie good? Well, no: have any of the movies in this series been “good”? You judge these films by a special set of criteria:

– Is it scary? (Occasionally.)

– Is it funny? (Sometimes quite funny, and even intentionally so.)

– Any gratuitous sex/nudity? (Yes.)

– Are the murders imaginative? (There are a couple of good ones.)

So on those terms, Jason X succeeds, but no one will likely mistake it for the latest Merchant-Ivory opus. The premise occupies the borderline between clever and cretinous: In the near future, Jason (Kane Hodder, returning as the hockey-masked brute for the fourth time) has been cryogenically preserved after numerous attempts to kill him have failed. Some suicidally stupid scientists, led by David Cronenberg in an amusing cameo, thaw Jason out to study him and see exactly why he’s so unkillable. (The reason: Paramount wanted to make lots of money back in the ’80s.) Predictably, Jason breaks loose and kills pretty much everyone within reach. He’s about to finish off his last prey — Rowan (Lexa Doig), a scientist who opposed thawing him out — when both he and Rowan are frozen. And there they stay until 2455, when a space crew happens across them. They bring Rowan, who can be brought back to life, and Jason, whom they believe to be dead, onto their spaceship.

Bad move. Most of Jason X plays like a geek’s conflation of Friday the 13th and Aliens remixed as a videogame. Jason makes swift work of the soldiers on board; another suicidally stupid scientist (Jonathan Potts, in the Paul Reiser role) looks at Jason and sees dollar signs, and orders him to be taken alive; many people die. Director Jim Isaacs (who has worked on a few Cronenberg movies — hence the drop-ins by that director plus Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman) and writer Todd Farmer concoct some brutally creative ways for Jason’s victims to meet their maker: one poor woman gets her head dunked in a vat of liquid nitrogen, whereupon Jason smashes her frozen, brittle skull against a counter; a soldier falls onto a large screw (never mind what it’s doing there) and revolves slowly down as it impales him; a couple of guys get to die make-believe deaths in a battle simulation, then die again for real at Jason’s hands.

Some of this is exuberantly crappy bad fun. When the ship’s android, the babelicious Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), brings out a mega-gun in each hand and puts zillions of bullets in Jason, we’re in Tomb Raider territory (the game, not the sorry-ass movie). When a crew member gets his arm hacked off by accident, it gets reattached with futuristic ease (oddly, not much comes of this new-fangled healing technology; when Jason sets out to dismember people, they stay dismembered). For longtime students of the series, there’s a legitimately fine comic sequence in which the surviving crew members, in an attempt to distract Jason, put him in a virtual-reality sim of Camp Crystal Lake. For a brief moment, new-school splatterpunk steps aside for old-school slash, and the sequence, prankish as it is (the sim comes complete with a couple of giggling, topless girls in sleeping bags), points up what’s fundamentally wrong with Jason X: It just isn’t the same when Jason stalks the sterile halls of a spaceship. The Halloween movies need to unfold in placid suburbia, and the Friday the 13th movies need a rural lakeside setting; you need to almost smell the pine and hear the waves lapping the shore. (No lake, no gratuitous skinny-dipping.) It might have been clever to have the VR Camp Crystal Lake sequence go on longer, pitting the futuristic crew members against Jason on his familiar turf. Not that Jason loses any advantage no matter where he finds himself; he skulks his way around a 25th-century spacecraft as if he’s been in a dozen of them.

Those who feel the way I do about the Friday the 13th series — those who break into a small, guilty grin when recalling the hours wasted in front of these things on cable or video as a teenager — might get about as much out of Jason X as I did. Which is to say, a mildly amusing ride down memory lane. By the time Jason stomps out in full metal CyberJason mode — looking like a geek’s conflation of Jason and the Terminator (did James Cameron get any royalties?) — the loving cheese tribute to the ’80s is complete. The soundtrack could’ve used some New Wave tunes to match, but that’s okay. All we need — all we ever needed in these movies — is the ominously silly chh-chh-chh-kaa-kaa-kaa on the soundtrack as stupid young people prepare to have sex while Jason lurks nearby with a machete. And, say what you will, I’d forgotten how much a part of me (the eternally teenage part, probably) missed that.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

April 19, 2002

Not as wonderful as the grandmothers of America would have you believe, but not bad at all. Nia Vardalos has an effortless, self-deprecating charm as Toula, the 30-year-old Greek single whose family hounds her to marry a nice Greek boy and make Greek babies. Instead she falls in love with whitebread teacher John Corbett, causing no end of consternation for her father (Michael Constantine), mother (Lainie Kazan), and aunt (Andrea Martin). Vardalos’ script makes the Greek family relentlessly ethnic and leeches any possible personality out of Corbett’s own parents; Corbett himself is made a little too perfect and acquiescent. The movie is really little more than an extended pilot episode for the short-lived sitcom it would later become (My Big Fat Greek Life, with most of the cast returning except Corbett), but it’s good comfort food and has some inspired comedy moments; it’s worth it just to hear Andrea Martin try to pronounce “biopsy.” As everyone knows by now, it was a runaway sleeper hit, becoming one of the biggest independent successes of all time. Director Joel Zwick is primarily known for helming sitcom episodes; his brother is Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai).

The Scorpion King

April 19, 2002

Further proof that the ’80s are back: The Scorpion King is almost beat for beat identical to the many sword-and-sorcery movies we got circa 1982 or so — I’m not even talking Excalibur or Conan the Barbarian, I’m talking The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer. The difference is that those movies were fun; this one isn’t. And now the conundrum: Do I look back fondly on those movies because I was twelve at the time, and am I judging The Scorpion King unduly harshly because I’m almost 32 now? Will today’s twelve-year-olds look back fondly on The Scorpion King in 2022? I have to wonder: By then they’ll probably stumble across it on cable and be like, “Hey, remember this? Remember The Rock? Where’s he now?”

Where The Rock is now is at a crossroads between WWF wrestler (and, let’s shudder to recall, bestselling author) and movie star. Clearly he wants to follow a career track similar to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger (though he probably wants to skip the equivalents of Last Action Hero and Batman and Robin). The Rock has presence and even some range, or at least a cheerful willingness to play against his ring persona; I caught a couple of his skits on the Saturday Night Live he hosted, and he showed more energy than he ever does in The Scorpion King. The movie tries way too hard to package him as the next stoic head-cruncher.

Here he’s Mathayus, mercenary warrior, one of the last of the Akkadians. One look at Mathayus and his bow in action, and you wonder why there are only a handful of his people left; plop him into the middle of a Lord of the Rings battle scene and he could probably take care of most of the Orcs simply by flexing in their direction. In short, he’s a hero who’s impossible to worry about and difficult to care about. Mathayus is out for the blood of Memnon (Steven Brand), a master swordsman who has enslaved thousands under the pretense of bringing order to a chaotic land. Memnon has the help of a sorceress (Kelly Hu) who can see the future — she’s named Cassandra, cutely enough — and who promptly throws in with Mathayus and a comic-relief (read: annoying) horse thief (Grant Heslov) against Memnon, who it turns out has been forcing her to see the future for him.

Director Chuck Russell, who used to have some promise (rent his Blob remake and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 sometime), has shrewdly cast a bunch of mostly uninspired actors around The Rock, the better to make him look less bad. Kelly Hu has not one but two emerging-from-water-half-naked moments destined for the mental playlists of many twelve-year-old boys, and obviously hasn’t been hired for any particular emoting acumen; Grant Heslov fails to be the scuzzy-funny sidekick Kevin J. O’Connor was in 1999’s The Mummy (more on that in a minute); the massive, abyss-voiced Michael Clarke Duncan, as a warrior who shows enmity towards Mathayus until the script requires him to develop respect for him, does his Michael Clarke Duncan thing — standing around and frightening nearby air molecules away just by frowning, then tossing in that big goofy grin that’s as much his trademark as the eyebrow-elevation is The Rock’s (he deploys the Eyebrow once, hip-deep in a harem).

The Scorpion King is a spin-off of Stephen Sommers’ Mummy series; The Rock appeared briefly in The Mummy Returns as the Scorpion King, and this movie is meant, I guess, as the beginning of a prequel series. (One problem: since we know Mathayus eventually becomes the annihilating Scorpion King as seen in The Mummy Returns, one of the projected Scorpion King sequels has got to have a downer ending.) Chuck Russell, who doesn’t seem to share Sommers’ adolescent glee with action-adventure (he’s happier making monster movies, I think), stages much of the action in a manner that’s both hectic and bored; despite its whiplash running time, there are quite a few slow spots, never more so than when we’re asked to believe in The Rock and Kelly Hu falling in love. Hell, give me the spirit of Imhotep taking on the shape of a sandstorm and chasing soldiers across the desert; that, I can more readily accept.

The Sweetest Thing

April 12, 2002

tumblr_m979fjehWz1rceklro1_500The Sweetest Thing pretty much got used as a toilet when it came out. I don’t know why. It’s not great or inspired by any means, but it’s cute and amusing enough. I think it suffered from critics’ general weariness of gross-out humor, and The Sweetest Thing has its share. In the unrated version, anyway (I can’t speak for what was shown in the R-rated theatrical cut, not having seen it), there’s the glory-hole scene, the maggot-ridden-leftovers scene, the pierced-penis-meets-tonsils scene, incessant frank girl talk about sex, and the one segment I know wasn’t in the theatrical version, “The Penis Song.” Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, and Selma Blair lead a restaurant full of diners in an exuberant song-and-dance number set to the beat of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” (“You’re too big to fit in here, too big to fit in here,” etc.). The idea of it is funny. It goes on a bit past the point it makes, though.

Jason Bateman is nearly unrecognizable under his beard, but he’s pretty damn funny as the shameless brother of Diaz’ love interest Thomas Jane. Applegate has only improved with age — physically and comedically — and she throws herself wholeheartedly into the role of Diaz’ best friend and roomie. Neglect not Selma Blair, who proves in this film and Storytelling that there’s very little she won’t do on the grounds that it might be bad for her image. I mean, any actress who’s willing to sing the Aerosmith ballad from Armageddon with an off-camera cock in her mouth…

I laughed now and again. Much of it is simply too farcical to be credible in the real-world context the movie sets up, and screenwriter (and South Park veteran) Nancy M. Pimental, apparently eager to prove that girls can write just as raunchy as boys, borrows a bit too much from the Farrelly brand of comic-nightmare public humiliation (most of which involves poor Selma Blair). But the leads are fun to spend 90 minutes with, the dialogue is sometimes sharp, and the movie in general takes its cue from Cameron Diaz’ freewheeling ass-jiggle down the street right at the start. Plus, any comedy that makes room for a bit by Parker Posey as a bride who insists “I’m beautiful! I’m beautiful!” has its heart in the right place.

The sight of blond, bubbly Diaz surrounding herself with two best buds — one brunette, one dark-haired — certainly recalls the dynamic of Charlie’s Angels (though this film did not repeat the earlier blockbuster’s box-office, suggesting that Diaz still has yet to be an asses-in-seats star all by herself). And when the ladies gab about sex the movie plays a bit like a cruder version of Sex and the City (the city here being San Francisco). If you’re gonna rent it, hold out for the unrated disc. It’s the gaudy red box. If you’re gonna go with it, go all the way.


April 12, 2002

When mainstream critics rave about a horror movie, watch out. Frailty, 2002’s winner of the Blair Witch Overpraised Indie Horror Award, has a few fine moments before turning gimmicky and twisty, but longtime horror fans won’t find anything especially fresh in this humorless and derivative rural psychodrama. The pain and terror of watching a beloved father go violently insane was handled far better in Stephen King’s The Shining; religious mania was done brilliantly in The Rapture; a Texan family united by slaughter was perfected in … well, you know. Frailty reminded me of Sam Raimi’s two slowpoke rural thrillers, A Simple Plan and The Gift; admirers of those films may take the following with a grain of salt.

Making his directing debut, Bill Paxton has picked a script (by Brent Hanley) that offers him a plum role: a loving yet deranged dad. This means he gets to kill people with an ax and volunteer to help his eldest son with his math homework. (No, not simultaneously. Though if he did, this’d be more my kind of movie.) Paxton plays Dad (the credits provide no other name) as a decent, hard-workin’ (an auto mechanic), God-fearin’ son of Texas who receives a visit from an angel one night. The angel, clearly not of the soothing Roma Downey variety, has bad news for Dad: the end is near, demons walk among us, and they must be destroyed. In a later scene, Dad — in the closest, probably inadvertently, this sober-sided movie ever comes to a laugh — looks deep into the underside of a car and sees the angel pointing a flaming sword at him. “There’s your trouble, ma’am,” I imagine Dad telling the car’s owner on Monday, “there’s a demon in your carburetor. An angel pointed it out to me. We’re gonna need to get a new part in for that.”

Dad’s sudden mission to go demon-busting distresses his elder boy, Fenton (Matthew O’Leary), who suspects that Dad’s cheese has slid off his cracker; Fenton’s younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) takes to the calling like a natural-born killer, sweetly and obsequiously enabling Dad’s homicidal fantasies. There are two ways the script could’ve gone from here, both of them interesting. It could’ve stayed with the grim reality of living with a demon-slaying dad; or it could’ve literalized the conflict and had Dad’s victims actually turn out to be demons — I mean horned, Buffy the Vampire Slayer demons. The latter would’ve been cheeseball, but it might’ve been more fun than what we get. In a present-day framing sequence, we keep going back to the adult Fenton (Matthew McConaughey in one of his glowering, I’m-about-to-piss-a-fish-hook performances) trying to convince an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) that he knows who’s been committing some recent murders dubbed the God’s Hand killings. Gee, there are just so many people in this densely populated film the killer could be!

I was with Frailty as long as it promised to be an adult thriller tackling the always-intriguing topic of religious mania with some complexity. The script, though, abandons the complexity almost entirely. Dad’s victims do turn out to be demons, of a sort — one victim in particular is presumably a wife-beating lout — so, hey, maybe Dad is doing God’s work. The narrative leads to a twist, and then a twist in that twist, and Frailty just becomes another “clever” Chinese-box movie. There is the potential for greatness and true horror in this film, and that potential is dashed against such plot stupidities as a character being kept in solitude without food for over a week and miraculously not starving (did the angel sneak him Twinkies?), or the Dead Zone rip-off chintziness of Dad laying hands on his victims and then recoiling as he gets a peek at the past sins of the “demons.” Frailty, indeed, feels like Sling Blade rewritten at a crawl by Stephen King, who is quoted gushingly in the movie’s ads; did he actually enjoy this lukewarm reheating of his work, or did he just appreciate Bill Paxton and Brent Hanley’s sincerest form of flattery?

Big Trouble

April 5, 2002


For the second time, director Barry Sonnenfeld has made a movie adaptation that was a funnier, better movie in its original book form. First was 1995’s Get Shorty, an amiable enough time-passer based on the laugh-out-loud Elmore Leonard novel. Now comes, belatedly, Big Trouble, based on Dave Barry’s 1999 novel-length goof, a farce consciously patterned on the work of fellow South Florida writer Carl Hiaasen. Barry, hilariously, was incapable of striking a detached Novelist Stance in his first whack at fiction; he was always throwing in vintage little asides that let you know this wasn’t a serious novel, just a tall tale told by your pal Dave.

Your pal Barry (Sonnenfeld, that is) has no such informal gifts, though he tries, bewilderingly, for a comically scattershot tone by beginning the movie with one narrator and then abandoning him for another. (This might be more accurately blamed on scripters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, whose previous attempts at “comedy” were Destiny Turns on the Radio and Life.) The film is more or less faithful to the events in Barry’s novel, lifts a good deal of Barry’s witty dialogue, and recruits a proven cast of laugh-winners. Why, then, is it so resolutely unfunny? It’s not because of the scene that forced the film’s release to be postponed after 9/11, wherein a pair of oafish thugs successfully smuggle a nuclear bomb onto a plane. That’s unfunny for the same reason everything else here is unfunny: Sonnenfeld, despite early success with the Addams Family films (I credit those to writer Paul Rudnick), just isn’t a natural at this comedy thing.

Failed newspaper writer turned adman Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen) — by virtue of being played by Tim Allen, one supposes — takes center stage, whereas in Barry’s book he was just one of many benighted characters pairing off in pursuit of the nuke. Eliot’s son Matt (Ben Foster) has targeted schoolmate Jenny (Zooey Deschanel) to be “killed” by squirt gun; Eliot falls for Jenny’s mom Anna (Rene Russo), who’s stuck in a grisly marriage to an embezzling lout named Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci). Along for the ride are two cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton), two FBI guys (Omar Epps and Heavy D), two hit men (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler), and the aforementioned two lowlife thugs (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville). There’s also a drifter named Puggy (Jason Lee), who lives in the Herks’ tree and falls for their frightened maid Nina (Sofia Vergara).

At the beginning, Puggy tells us about Noah’s ark, possibly to explain why Big Trouble has so many duos running around (not to mention goats, bufotenine-spewing toads, and the world’s stupidest dog, a favorite Dave Barry motif). It’s easy to see why Barry structured it that way: endless scenes of two people getting on each other’s nerves. But the pairing-up in the movie seldom works; despite the talented cast, the matchmaking isn’t inspired. Putting the sharp-tongued Janeane Garofalo and the laconic, macho Patrick Warburton together sounds funnier than it turns out to be; Tim Allen and Rene Russo strike no romantic or comedic sparks; Stanley Tucci, steeped in his character’s obnoxiousness and, one hopes, using the paycheck to fund another movie like Big Night, is almost painful to watch. Even that great bulldog Dennis Farina, who outright stole Get Shorty, plays a disappointingly mild hit man.

Sonnenfeld plays most of Barry’s notes but misses the music. I laughed often while reading the book; the movie never got more than a chortle from me. The script makes two particularly senseless changes to Barry’s story near the end: Tim Allen races to the rescue, when readers know it should be Janeane Garofalo (who’s left handcuffed to a shelf along with Tucci, switching places with Warburton’s character in the book, for no reason other than to bring in a lame strip-search gag); and Tucci, hallucinating under the influence of the toad’s bufotenine, thinks the family dog is Martha Stewart. In the book, it was Elizabeth Dole; I could try to explain why Elizabeth Dole was funnier, but if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.