Archive for May 2003

Wrong Turn

May 30, 2003

The press materials for Wrong Turn boast of “a film steeped in the traditions of classic ’70s-style horror movies”; if only that were true. It was true of Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, which came and went rather quickly; Zombie’s effort, whatever its flaws, had a rotgut intensity indebted to vintage grindhouse horror. Wrong Turn tries valiantly to resurrect the psycho-hillbilly genre, a staple in modern slasher films going back to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs in 1964, but it forgets that the best horror movies of this type — Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes — had no name stars. Here, you say “Oh, that’s Eliza Dushku from Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Hey, Desmond Harrington from Ghost Ship” — the familiarity is comforting, and this type of movie shouldn’t be comforting. The ads for Chainsaw intoned, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Well, we pretty much figure Eliza Dushku will survive; she’s on the poster and everything.

Admirably, the movie wastes little time getting onto the on-ramp. A couple of rock-climbers fall victim to shadowy killers, and the standard-issue freaky opening-credits sequence briefs us on a group of deformed, inbred West Virginia “mountain men.” The deformities in question look real and horrifying, but the three actual villains are obvious boogeymen from the Stan Winston make-up studio — long-haired galoots with scraggly teeth, who speak in their own guttural language while carving up some hapless camper.

Med student Chris (Harrington, in a dead-calm performance to match Robert Patrick in Terminator 2) gets into a car accident with a bunch of teens (including Dushku, who can’t quite shake her too-cool-for-school mannerisms left over from Faith on Buffy) on a godforsaken stretch of road. Predictably, the first among them to become hillbilly fodder are the sex-and-weed-obsessed couple; the forbidding morals of these movies haven’t changed much in a quarter-century. Harrington and Dushku pair off with the “nicer” couple, who are engaged to be married and therefore earn the right to live longer. They stumble upon a ramshackle cabin crammed with the sort of squalor décor — rotting food, buzzing flies, odd things kept in jars — familiar from this movie’s ancestors (especially Chainsaw, which showed us fear in a roomful of bones and chicken feathers).

Wrong Turn, impersonally directed by Rob Schmidt from a script by longtime hack Alan McElroy (Spawn, Halloween 4), has nothing in particular going on in it aside from fight and flight. The hillbillies, inarticulate grunters seen mostly in shadow, have no personalities or desires (aside from killing people); they’re as unreachable and unintelligible as Orcs. The movie shies away from the paranoid subtext of all films of this stripe: city folk just ain’t welcome out there in the boonies, where murder and moonshine are the regional pastimes. These could be any woods, and the killers could be vampires or something, and it would make no difference to the action.

Which, as horror action goes, is somewhat lackluster. It’s the usual quick-cut, this-is-all-we-can-show-you R-rated mayhem, with such implements as axes, arrows, and barbed wire looped around the face. A scene in which several of the protagonists cower in terrified hiding while one of their number is sliced up is too brief to build up any suspense, and we don’t buy that the hillbillies don’t notice they’ve got company. A sequence up in a watchtower is just an excuse for a highly implausible tree-jumping episode. Wrong Turn isn’t insane enough to be scary, and it’s too unpleasant to be fun. The problem with the movie is that it’s really “steeped in the traditions” of the non-classic horror movies of the ’90s.

The Italian Job (2003)

May 30, 2003

the_italian_job_2003_TIJ_04The Italian Job is a huge cult favorite in England — the 1969 original starring Michael Caine, that is; the new American remake has been greeted with much harrumphing and tea-spitting across the pond, by British movie fans who describe the very idea as “naff” and “pants” and various other Englishisms. (They still haven’t quite gotten over the Get Carter remake.) The first Italian Job is tough to come by these days (the video is out of print in America), so many of us Yanks will have to come to the remake with virgin eyes, which may be a good thing. Never mind how it holds up to the revered Michael Caine effort; how is it as its own movie?

It’s a passable time-waster. On one level I yawned all the way through it, as it’s yet another goddamn heist film. Mark Wahlberg is also in it. But it’s directed with some grace and snap by F. Gary Gray (of the excellent Set It Off, the lackluster if shrewdly cast The Negotiator, and the failed Vin Diesel entry A Man Apart earlier this year), with dialogue by Donna and Wayne Powers that sounds as if they had some laughs while typing it. It’s built for your television on a dead Wednesday.

Edward Norton, phoning it in as the movie’s resident turncoat, may have sensed the movie’s true calling as network background noise. The press informs us that Norton, who usually brings a hungry curiosity to each role, was contractually obligated to do The Italian Job, and he seems to approach it as just that, a job. Gore Vidal once said that to be interesting, you have to be interested. I have never seen Norton less interested, or less interesting, on the screen. I take a whole paragraph on this only to warn off those who might be drawn to the film solely because Norton is in it. He isn’t really in it. His body is, but he isn’t.

So we’re left with Mark Wahlberg as the leader of a band of high-tech thieves. Wahlberg is the idea man (nobody questions his judgment even though it was his idea to do The Truth About Charlie). Seth Green, who insists that he invented Napster and demands to be nicknamed accordingly, is the computer geek. Mos Def is the nitro man. Jason Statham is the expert driver of the team, called Handsome Rob, a name obviously calculated to win my favor. Finally, Donald Sutherland is the team’s grandmaster safecracker and mentor; Sutherland is looking hale and hearty despite his emphysema, though much less so when floating face-down in icy water care of Edward Norton. Sutherland’s daughter, Charlize Theron, has adopted his skills but not his morals; a “professional safe and vault technician,” she cracks safes legally for a living. She joins former flame Wahlberg in a revenge plot against Norton.

That plot, which concerns stealing the gold that Norton stole from Wahlberg’s crew after they stole it from a place in Venice, is less about the gold than about seeing the look on Norton’s face when he discovers that his booty is missing, as more than one character puts it. Problem is, we never see that, but we do get an awkward scene of Norton hitting on Theron (disguised as a cable tech) and taking her out to dinner. Norton does have a little fun with this section of the movie, and the director has much more fun with the protracted climactic chase through L.A., involving a helicopter, three trucks, and three tiny, graceful MINI Coopers for which the movie is an unabashed commercial. (An earlier chase through the canals of Venice — yes, it features a speedboat swamping a gondola — is far less inspired.)

If The Italian Job succeeds at any level, it’s because the characters enjoy what they do, as do most of the actors (not much can be done with Wahlberg, and Norton, let’s say, is convincing as a character who’s only in it for the money). Seth Green is charming when snarling up L.A. traffic, though his best moment comes during the end credits in a bit involving powerful stereo speakers. Mos Def has some amusing moments, and Jason Statham contributes to a fine bit in which he hollers at a recalcitrant driver in traffic, a wannabe actor running lines of dialogue in his car, who responds to Statham’s entreaty by adapting his rough British snarl to the dialogue. And there’s a charmingly showoffy camera crane movement that tilts up from the Venice canals, pans right, and tilts down again among the Austrian mountains. The movie is fast, if not quite furious. The Brits might not like it, but your left ear might enjoy it when it’s on TV some night and you have it on while doing something else.

Bruce Almighty

May 23, 2003

brucealmightyIn Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey, once again gamely playing a powerless schmuck for the first reel, gets the power of God. It’s not specifically what he asked for; cursing the Creator over a particularly bad day (humiliated during his flunky comic-relief-TV-reporter job, fired, beaten up, etc.), Carrey just wants to know why God hates him so. It’s the suffering of Job reloaded for the media age (will many Americans sympathize with the angst of a presumably well-paid TV personality?), and God, in the person of Morgan Freeman, calls Carrey to Him and offers him a job. “I’m going on vacation,” God says, blithely leaving the universe in Carrey’s jittery hands. The message is clear: If you think being God is easy, you try it.

Bruce Almighty is interesting only insofar as it proposes God as a basically well-meaning if remote deity, not the maddening Shaper who drove William Blake to wonder if the same God made the lamb and the tiger. Fundamentalists whose noses are forever tilted for the scent of sacrilege won’t find much in the movie to object to. Morgan Freeman, for instance, embodies God as a hip update of George Burns’ avuncular, amused Lord in Oh, God. Both actors are a stroke of casting wit, but a wilder, funnier movie might’ve given us, say, Danny DeVito or a tipsy, irritable Eddie Izzard as God (heck, we’ve already had Keanu Reeves as both Buddha and a neo-Christ, no pun intended).

Essentially, this is another of Jim Carrey’s surefire vehicles that can be whittled down to a phrase: Jim Carrey is the Grinch; Jim Carrey is God. I like the guy, and I wish his box-office failures with The Majestic (understandable — that was a stiff) and Man on the Moon (I had the poster hanging on my wall for years) hadn’t scared him into such bland, unchallenging material. What would Jim Carrey do if given ultimate power? The question provokes a grin of anticipation, but he pretty much does what you see him do in the trailer. There is one spectacularly funny bit when he sabotages the newscast of snotty rival Steve Carell, but the big laughs in the scene belong to Carell, not Carrey.

The movie seems squarely aimed at a large audience (check the opening-weekend figures) that might be wondering, in these harrowing times, if God knows what He’s doing. Bruce Almighty is here to reassure doubters and put them in their place at the same time. The godlike Carrey fritters away his power and can’t even hold onto his girlfriend of five years (Jennifer Aniston, being a good sport). Only God, the movie says, knows how to use the power, and He uses it mostly by not using it: “You all have the power,” He lectures Carrey. What should be a wild, unruly, possibly sacrilegious fable — think Life of Brian — becomes a didactic companion piece to The Truman Show, with Carrey as hapless puppeteer instead of hapless puppet. And it says essentially the same (humanist) thing: Take your life into your own hands.

Carrey does get off some good riffs, mostly in his pre-God fits of pique; I enjoyed his obscene jazz-pantomime gesture, destined to be copied by giggling kids from shore to shore. The subtext, though, shows us a man with the power of God who’s still insecure and, as the movie spells out, wants to be loved. Carrey, who’s been the closest thing to God studio executives have seen since the canonization of Tom Cruise, may agree with some of us that he’s not using his powers to their full potential, and this material — which could’ve been played by anyone, really — is Exhibit A. But its box-office returns will be hard to argue with.

The Matrix Reloaded

May 15, 2003

There are two ways of looking at The Matrix Reloaded (and, by extension, its 1999 predecessor): Either it’s a film of ideas disguised as an action flick, or an action flick disguised as a film of ideas. The general public, I suspect, will not be drawn to this long-awaited sequel just to hear philosophical notions bandied about, though hear them it will. No, the honest response to a Matrix film is also twofold: Either the movie kicks ass or it doesn’t. As someone who was rather dismissive of the original movie, I can report that Matrix Reloaded does indeed kick whatever is put in front of it, at least on the level of comic-book/anime/techno-dweeb escapism.

We pick up Neo (Keanu “I still know kung fu” Reeves) and his un-merry band of rebels — stoic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), PVC-clad Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), newbie Link (Harold Perrineau) — in their continuing resistance against the Matrix, a machine-generated code programmed to keep humans in unwitting bondage while using their energy for computer fuel. Interestingly, Morpheus, an unquestionable hipster sage in the first film, here is revealed to be just one voice among many in Zion, the underground city where the last free humans take shelter. Not everyone, it seems, takes Morpheus’ prophetic shtick as seriously as he himself does, though it’s a measure of this largely humorless film (Joe Pantoliano’s wise-guy Cypher is missed) that nobody tells him “Dude. There are other people besides you. Try some decaf.”

Brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski crafted a reasonable shiny-black diversion with The Matrix; I wasn’t as impressed by it as many others were, but I can see the appeal of it (mainly, it’s a computer geek’s wet dream: if you spend most of your waking life pushing floppies in and out, you might get chosen to be a kung-fu hero and get jiggy with Carrie-Anne Moss). The brothers, however, seem to have caught the George Lucas disease — they’ve become too smitten with the perfume of their own borrowed ideas (not only from pop culture but from philosophy — Lucas had Joseph Campbell, the Wachowskis genuflect towards Derrida and Baudrillard). Maybe they read too many furrowed-brow essays on The Phenomenology of The Matrix.

Whatever the case, every twenty minutes or so, we get an action sequence (more on those in a minute) designed to outdo everything else ever; between the money scenes, we get characters standing at attention and burping prophecies and deep thoughts at each other. Whenever a new character called the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim) opens his mouth, cheese falls out: “I know this because I must know.” Glad you clarified that, Sparky. Another new character, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), drones on (in a French accent, yet) about causality. But the Wachowskis save the best for last, when Neo steps into a Kubrickian white room and meets the deus ex machina himself, the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), whose professorial white beard dislodges things like “Which brings us at last to the moment of truth wherein the fundamental flaw is ultimately expressed and the anomaly revealed as both beginning and end.” Would you like fries with that?

When it’s not brooding Gnostically about determinism and what-have-you, The Matrix Reloaded does put the extra money on the screen. When Neo’s dryly self-amused nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) replicates himself, like a virus, to form a hundred-man army against Neo, the sequence is fun if a little too PlayStation-ish. The opening Trinity-and-agent bullet-time plummet is so good it’s shown twice. And the fourteen-minute freeway chase has been and will be justly celebrated as one of the great concussive symphonies of force and momentum. Reloaded takes what I enjoyed in the original — the freaky eye candy — and cranks it up to 11. The stuff in between, I — and maybe you — can take or leave, unless you thrill to dialogue like “While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected and thus not beyond a measure of control.” Yeah. What he said.

The Shape of Things

May 9, 2003

The_Shape_of_Things_12776_MediumI Love You, Now Change is, I believe, the title of one self-help book or another (and if not, it should be). It describes the phenomenon of narcissists who find that almost perfect someone, then suggest alterations to fix him or her more to their liking, always under the pretense of trying to help. Perhaps they believe it themselves. In The Shape of Things, the close-cutting new film by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty), a schlumpy grad student named Adam (Paul Rudd) meets an alluring art major named Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). They fall in love, mainly off-camera, and every time we see Adam he gets less schlumpy. His friends Phillip (Fred Weller) and Jenny (Gretchen Mol), far from being happy about his self-improvement, get worried. As well they should, because Phillip and Jenny are about to be married, and Adam’s situation makes them think about things they’d rather not deal with.

Check the names: Adam and Eve(lyn). LaBute is fond of meaningful names, and we pick up a scent of unease: Is Evelyn offering Adam the forbidden fruit of self-knowledge? Was he happier before Evelyn came into his life and nudged him out of his rut? He loses weight, loses his frumpy clothing, finally loses his old nose in favor of a streamlined new one. I’m not sure how well this worked on the stage, where the material originated, but in the film we can see Adam transforming from a tweedy Sam Gamgee type to the generically handsome Paul Rudd (whose all-American looks LaBute used to subversive effect in “A Gaggle of Saints,” one of his pieces in Bash: Latter-Day Plays). Phillip, perhaps sensing the loss of the familiar dynamic between himself and Adam, is threatened; Jenny, newly attracted to Adam, reaches out to him.

Rachel Weisz is well on her way to becoming another Helena Bonham Carter (whom she resembles). She’s shown an affinity for quirky indie fare as well as the knockabout fun in the Mummy series, and her passion for the material here — to the extent of co-producing the film — overrides whatever qualms we have about Evelyn. We feel her presence when she’s not around; the other characters are always discussing Evelyn and her impact on Adam. Evelyn is also dedicated to her version of truth, which in LaBute territory means blurting out secrets with a flat affect and at the worst time. We don’t quite know how to read her, so we take her as perhaps a necessary grain of sand in the oyster, with Adam as the emerging pearl. After all, she’s really only shaking things up that maybe needed shaking up.

Things get shaken, all right. The last act, which I won’t reveal, carries echoes of In the Company of Men and the Bash plays, in which we’re lured into accepting a character’s motives only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Using only one character, a microphone, and two photos, LaBute gives us a sequence of scathing emotional violence that outdoes anything I’ve seen this year. Is it plausible? Not really, but LaBute dotes on theatrical flourishes. Things are literally unveiled here, including a pair of middle fingers extended to the audience (yes, that means us as well as the audience in the film), like punk rock played at a chamber-music recital.

The Shape of Things finds LaBute back in the artsy, misanthropic universe he’s been edging away from lately (in the lovely Nurse Betty and the atypical love story Possession). In that respect, it’s a bit of a regression. It’s not an unwelcome one, though. LaBute exaggerates hostilities and conflicts, gives us master schemers nowhere to be found in real life, in order to open a conversation about how we relate to each other and how we create ourselves. The key to the movie is that it’s not about cold manipulation, but about a cold, manipulative view of human nature. LaBute doesn’t necessarily share it; he simply presents it.

X2: X-Men United

May 2, 2003

MV5BNDcwNjgyMDE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDE2MjU3__V1__SX485_SY325_The conflict gets rather brutal and bloody (well, PG-13 bloody) in X2, the first racehorse out of the summer-movie box. As before (in 2000’s X-Men), mutants are pitted against their genetically inferior human counterparts and against each other; the stakes couldn’t be higher, on the screen and behind the camera. But director Bryan Singer, whose first X-Men was a sly and modestly scaled piece of work, makes sure the animating theme of this series — the freedom to be different in the face of intolerant authority — doesn’t get lost in the din of battle. It is possibly not a message that our government wants millions of American moviegoers to hear just now, but hear it they will.

The mustache-twirler in this piece is not Magneto (Ian McKellen), who spends half the movie in a plastic cell and the other half in grudging, necessary collaboration with the heroes who put him there. No, this time it’s General William Stryker (Brian Cox, doing his specialty of self-amused malevolence), who has the ear of the President and wants to see all mutants eliminated. Unlike the first film’s human bigot Senator Kelly, who could only whine from the senate floor to get his Mutant Registration Act pushed through, Stryker wields shadowy commandos who barge into the mutant-training school of the noble Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

X2 punches up the action. The claw-fisted Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets his blades dirty more than once, most notably with one of Stryker’s pet mutants, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who has similar appendages and quick-healing abilities. A new character, the loose cannon Pyro (Aaron Stanford), makes short and fiery work of some misguided police. The major addition to Xavier’s flock is Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who can teleport himself anywhere and, for reasons we eventually discover, stages a sneak attack on the White House. It’s as if violent bigotry brought out concussive retaliatory rage in the oppressed; Singer, an openly gay director, has approached the series as empowering wish-fulfillment, and possibly a pre-emptive strike against the ignorant (take that, Rick Santorum).

The events — involving, among other things, the kidnapping of Xavier, the discovery of potentially fearsome powers in Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and a nice coming-out moment between teen mutant Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and his family — rocket along, but Singer knows what to do with convoluted narrative, as he proved in The Usual Suspects. The movie feels loaded but not overloaded. Unavoidably, some characters — the untouchable Rogue (Anna Paquin), the weather goddess Storm (Halle Berry) — take a slight back seat this time out; some of the nuances, like Magneto’s doting relationship with his blue-skinned changeling Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) or the irony of the devoutly religious Nightcrawler’s looking like a devil, are just sketched in, and the movie teases us with more oblique references to Wolverine’s origins. Like The Two Towers, much of X2 seems like a way station to a third movie.

Still, the typically brain-dead summer-movie season has at least launched with a deafening example of craft, pride, and unity. The final image promises redemption and rejuvenation, and that’s a refreshing drink right about now. Until further notice, the X-Men movies continue to be the most exciting and relevant mega-franchise since the Alien series closed its doors. Sometimes it takes fantasy to sneak in the side door and speak truths about our reality.