Archive for November 2003

Bad Santa

November 26, 2003

bad-santa-2003-01Bad Santa is to Christmas what Bad Lieutenant was to cops. I’ll go out on a limb and rank it right up there with Scrooged (only less stylish, and without the incomparable Bill Murray, who was once considered for this movie) in the admittedly small subgenre of anti-holiday comedies. The film’s success (or failure) really begins and ends with Billy Bob Thornton, and if you don’t get tired of watching him sitting in a grubby Santa suit and growling “What the fuck do you want?” to the latest kid unlucky enough to park on his piss-stained lap (it never got old for me), this is your movie this season. Merry Christmas.

Thornton is Willie T. Stokes, a drunken, foulmouthed loser who wearily dons the Santa suit each December for whatever shopping mall is desperate enough to hire him. His partner, the diminutive Marcus (Tony Cox), is a black elf with white pointy ears. Willie and Marcus have a lucrative scam: along with Marcus’ greedy wife Lois (Lauren Tom), they break into their mall employer’s safe after hours, make off with thousands of dollars, and head south until it’s time to do it all over again.

This year, however, throws Willie a chubby curveball, in the form of a neglected, pathetic kid (Brett Kelly, likable without being cutesy) who adopts Willie as a kind of surrogate Santa Dad. Willie will have none of this, even when he’s forced to move in with the kid and his decrepit grandma (Cloris Leachman). Yet some shred of decency begins to dawn in Willie’s booze-soaked heart. Without losing his disreputable, ornery edge — he’s still a drunk and a thief — Thornton enacts a slow, grudging turnaround that’s believable precisely because Willie is such an asshole. The movie is less about gaining the Christmas spirit than about defying the corporate ethos (personified by the mall’s mealy-mouthed manager, smoothly played by John Ritter in his final screen appearance) that hijacks and then abandons that spirit every year.

This is likely the closest that director Terry Zwigoff (of the brilliant documentary Crumb and 2001’s quirky comedy-drama Ghost World) will ever come to a mainstream movie: Bad Santa opened on 2,005 screens, for Christ’s sake. Yet, like Thornton, Zwigoff doesn’t sell out. Peppering the soundtrack with liberal satirical appropriation of dusty classical Christmas music, Zwigoff crafts the sort of vulgar, deadpan-funny fable even Robert Crumb might chuckle at. His taste in supporting actors remains first-rate: Bernie Mac appears as the mall’s corrupt head of security (who has a unique approach to reprimanding a shoplifting kid); Lauren Graham, in a far cry from her rather more innocent role on Gilmore Girls, scores as a bartender with (to Willie’s bemused surprise) a Santa fetish; Ajay Naidu (Office Space) and Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade) turn up for quick, memorable bits.

But it all comes back to Billy Bob, who owns this movie the way Murray owned Scrooged — an unrepentant shitheel who finds himself, by the end, risking death to deliver a pink stuffed elephant to the kid. Though not officially credited, Joel and Ethan Coen reportedly devised the film’s original story (their names are on the movie as executive producers), and I bet they got the idea while directing Thornton as the stoic, humorless barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There. I have a mental image of them on the set, putting a Santa hat on a sour-faced Billy Bob and laughing as they realized there could be a movie in that.

The Cat in the Hat

November 21, 2003

It doesn’t speak very well of The Cat in the Hat that the only thing that got anything close to a laugh out of me was Paris Hilton’s cameo. She plays a party-goer in some weird, G-rated rave club where the denizens all wear versions of the Cat’s familiar striped hat, which may be a reference to the way ravers have adopted Dr. Seuss garb (yeah, that was big ten years ago — I saw dorky stoners wearing those things at Lollapalooza ’93). But getting back to Paris Hilton: this may be the only time in history that someone has appeared in an X-rated video (albeit made public without her consent) and a big-budget kiddie flick within the same season. Ron Howard must be sighing with relief that his name isn’t anywhere near the credits.

Howard, of course, gave us How the Grinch Stole Christmas three Novembers ago, and his producing partner Brian Grazer, noting the hefty box-office returns even though nobody seems to have liked the movie much, has turned his attention to another Dr. Seuss book and hired another big comedy star to wear pounds of face-obscuring latex as the eponymous character. (Who’s next? Adam Sandler as the Lorax? Reese Witherspoon as Daisy-Head Mayzie?) Make-up artist Steve Johnson has taken over for Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for turning Jim Carrey into the Grinch. But the Grinch was supposed to look menacing and creepy; the Cat in the Hat, with his long thick eyelashes, snub nose, and wide mouth that seems to move independently of the rest of his face, looks like nobody so much as … well … Michael Jackson.

Another Michael, Mike Myers, is under the latex, and he never lets us forget that Mike Myers is under the latex. Myers gives a restless, noisy, pop-culture-in-a-Cuisinart performance — his Cat is a direct lineal descendant of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin (a bad precedent, it now appears). These movies insult intelligence across generational lines by providing flatulent slapstick for the kids (the lactose-intolerant Cat at one point unleashes the mother of all burps) and tired parodies of TV for parents. And there are about a hundred too many cut-aways to the bored kids Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin), whose house the Cat has invaded, as they stare at each other in bewilderment after one of the Cat’s many unfunny gags. (And you can take “gags” literally: the Cat also horks up a hairball, and is seen filling up a barf bag during a bumpy ride. Is Dr. Seuss rolling in his grave yet?)

The kids have been charged by their busy single mom (Kelly Preston) with keeping the house clean so that she can throw a party attended by her business clients and her germ-phobic boss (Sean Hayes, snipping like Will & Grace‘s Jack on overdrive). Conrad’s fate also depends on it, as Mom’s skunky boyfriend (Alec Baldwin, a long, sad distance from David Mamet) has threatened to send the kid to military school if he doesn’t shape up. Dr. Seuss’s book got along fine without any of these witless complications.

The visuals are as cluttered as the plot. The first-time director is Bo Welch, who made his name as a production designer for Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West, the Men in Black movies). Proving my theory that a creative whiz in another field promoted to director will focus on his field to the exclusion of all else, Welch makes the town of Anville (Cat‘s setting) an elaborate Pez-colored fantasyland. There’s even a mini-commercial for the “Seuss Landing” ride at Universal Studios (complete with a winking plug from Myers that’s so blatant it goes beyond irony and into conscious pimping — Mike, what has happened to you?). But look at the Seuss book and you find nothing more fancy than a few doors and windows.

Seuss knew how to tell a simple, enthralling, and funny story without hectic scenery or near-obscenities (a running “joke” in this PG-rated family film involves characters almost saying things like “ass” and “balls” before being interrupted). Brian Grazer, judging from the two Seuss movies he has uncorked, only knows how to corrupt those wonderful, simple tales. Doing Seuss in live-action isn’t doomed to failure: 1953’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Seuss himself, contains more wonder and vision in five minutes than the entireties of the Carrey Grinch and the Myers Cat put together. Of course, it was released fifty years ago. Will people still be watching this Cat in the Hat in 2053? I bet Paris Hilton hopes so.

21 Grams

November 21, 2003

21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his majestic Amores Perros, carries both the excitement and the self-defeat of a young filmmaker convinced that he can do anything. It’s a brilliant failure — a structural experiment that dazzles in individual pieces but utterly lacks any overriding, accumulating emotional power. I’m very glad that I saw it and that it was made, and I never want to see González Iñárritu do it again.

21 Grams tells a rather simple story, or trio of stories, which, like the tales in Amores Perros, are unified by a vehicular tragedy. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) is an ex-convict who has given it over to Jesus; he credits his Savior with everything from his clean new life to the big truck he drives. One night, driving this truck, Jack cuts a corner too fast and kills a man and his two daughters, leaving behind a grief-stricken widow, Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict who has flung herself into her family as avidly as Jack has into religion. Cristina makes the hard decision to allow her husband’s heart to be donated to Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), an ailing math professor who desperately needs it.

The fatal problem with 21 Grams is that the story is largely given to us in shuffled pieces; the chronology is splintered and all over the map. Hardly any scenes proceed from each other; González Iñárritu and his writer, Guillermo Arriaga, are too busy hopping around in time. Now Cristina has a family, now she doesn’t, now she does again. Now Paul is dying, now he has a new heart and a new lease on life, now he’s dying again. Now Jack has long hair and a job, now he’s in jail, now he’s got short hair and a job, now he’s in jail again. Eventually, somewhere in the second hour, the movie does become somewhat more linear, but the damage is done. The structure simply doesn’t let any of the characters build an arc of growth or despair; aside from being confusing, the narrative locks us out.

González Iñárritu does pull off some overwhelming moments, with the help of an eager cast (also including Charlotte Gainsbourg as Paul’s estranged wife and Melissa Leo as Jack’s slightly frightened wife). Del Toro’s Jack burns with shame and religious conviction — either way he’s burning, and Del Toro lets you see how tenuous Jack’s pious restraint on his inner animal sometimes is. Penn’s Paul is a quiet, intellectual type, of the sort Penn doesn’t often play, who gets caught up in the passion of looking for the former owner of his heart. Watts shines brightest as the despairing Cristina, decaying before our eyes, a lost soul redeemed by family and then removed from it. 21 Grams is powerfully acted and, scene for scene, well-directed, but I can’t say it’s well-put-together. Nor can I say the movie’s baffling scheme is lazy or pointless; it has clearly been structured this way for a reason, but nothing in the film will tell you why.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

November 14, 2003

masterandcommanderDespite its cumbersome title, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World may be the most richly entertaining large-scale Hollywood movie of 2003. Its story is simple yet compelling, its characters deftly and economically drawn, its action sequences tough and to-the-point yet never overextended or needlessly gory. In short, it’s what used to be called a cracking good yarn, which is good news for the many readers of Patrick O’Brian’s popular 20-volume series of sea adventures (of which this movie adapts the first and tenth).

It’s 1805, and Napoleon’s sea power is extending across the Pacific. Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), who commands the HMS Surprise, is assigned to stop a particularly durable French vessel, the Acheron, from getting too close to Britain for comfort. We see right from the start how monumental the task is: the Acheron, emerging from dense fog, very nearly blows the Surprise out of the water. From then on, Aubrey is driven to find and dispatch the Acheron, not least because of its insult to his beloved ship. “She’s not an old ship,” he says, patting a splintered wall. “She’s in her prime.” Later, rallying his men, he will announce, “This ship is England.”

The secret of Russell Crowe’s success as a movie star, I think, is not so much his looks — few above-the-title stars are as willing to let themselves go flabby and/or vulnerable — as his single-mindedness and his unblinking confidence that his single goal is worth the battle. Lest the poster lead you to expect another dour, humorless Crowe performance on the order of his grim Oscar-night appearances, I should report that Crowe is allowed a bit more lightness as the full-blooded Aubrey, who’s not above laughter or even telling really awful jokes (he sells the one about the weevils, though; I laughed). Perhaps he won his Oscar for Gladiator solely because he got through the material without looking ridiculous, but he’s always been a prickly and intriguing presence, and he’s softened here by the companionship of Aubrey’s longtime friend, the naturalist and surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who appeared with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind).

Director Peter Weir, after some years of erratic choices, has risen to the occasion and turned Master and Commander into a sharp example of classical filmmaking — the sort of meat-and-potatoes directing that shows effortless mastery with no intrusive pizzazz (the last example of it was The Pianist, which won Roman Polanski an Oscar). Weir doesn’t get lost inside this big Hollywood machine (which was handled by no fewer than three studios — Fox, Miramax, and Universal); he submits to the well-read franchise eagerly, with respect but not crippling awe, much like Peter Jackson with his Lord of the Rings movies. There’s an exhilaration in the big numbers, like a deadly storm at sea or the final battle between the Surprise (which makes good on its name) and the Acheron. Weir puts to shame the grinding, tense-faced exertions of the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix Revolutions; here, the battles count for something.

Master and Commander may feel to some viewers as if a talented director and cast made an excellent Star Trek movie and took it back to its roots (Star Trek II, for instance, could very easily be rewritten as a 19th-century nautical adventure). Weir doesn’t oversell the grit and grime of life on the ocean — we get that it’s hard, dangerous labor. What he and Crowe do is to show us why a crew of reasonably intelligent men, despite some pragmatic doubts now and then, would follow Aubrey on what certainly looks like a suicide mission. Without getting overly jingoistic about king and country (or dying for both), the movie restores some honor to the concept of giving one’s life to the sea, the ship, the captain, and God, not necessarily in that order. It’s an undeniably square, throwback movie, but there’s no major crime in making ’em like they used to, and doing it this elegantly.

The Matrix Revolutions

November 5, 2003

“Why do you keep fighting?” says the evil program Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) to our hero Neo (Keanu Reeves). “Why do you bother?” Well, because he has to fight, or else there wouldn’t be a megabucks redemptive finale. Not that The Matrix Revolutions tries (and fails) to redeem anything other than Hollywood’s belief that bigger is better. Even though almost every character keeps saying they don’t know what’s going to happen, every moment of this ugly-looking, monotonous spectacle feels pre-ordained. Neo, the designated messiah of this pop fantasy, must prevail by sheer will and … purity of heart, I guess. Everyone else seems rather expendable, and indeed major and minor characters die here without setting so much as a tremble of tragedy. It’s all about The One, and what he can do to save the humans of Zion. Everybody else helps him or stands around.

Unlike the first two films, Revolutions takes place almost entirely in the bleak, gun-metal sanctuary of Zion, the last stand of humanity, which is being threatened by the foot soldiers of the machines — writhing, relentless squid-like things called Sentinels. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who first opened Neo’s eyes to the Matrix, have become little more than his acolytes, unquestioningly accepting his every decision. “I have seen that I must make a banana sandwich,” Neo could say, and Morpheus would nod meaningfully. Those coming to this final installment for answers won’t find them; nobody knows anything, not even the down-to-earth Oracle (Mary Alice, in for the late Gloria Foster) — either that, or they know but are powerless to do much about it. The movie’s faith in One Savior is touching but robs the narrative of suspense: After three movies, does anyone think Neo won’t come through?

For what seems like an eternal stretch of screen time, various warriors of Zion do battle with hordes of Sentinels, in ships and in huge battle armor. On and on it goes, with people falling and dying, and Sentinels going up in explosive sparks. The goal is simple: Save the Dock. We hear it over and over: the humans must defend the dock where the ships come and go. After much dying and fighting, one of the ships finally makes it home, and a victory cry goes up. Then we’re told that the dock wasn’t saved after all, and that all the blood and thunder we’ve seen was just … filler, I suppose.

At least there’s not as much gassing on about destiny and anomalies as there was in The Matrix Reloaded. But writers-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski don’t come up with anything new to take its place. If Reloaded was ponderously philosophical, Revolutions is ponderously violent, with none of the freaky, eye-popping set pieces that distinguished its predecessors (I’m beginning to consider the original Matrix an example of taut, surprising storytelling in comparison with its follow-ups). And some of this stuff is just cheesy in the same way it’s been cheesy in dozens of cheaper, less cultish films. When a human is possessed by Agent Smith and holds a scalpel to Trinity’s throat to get Neo to drop his gun, I sighed and wondered where the Wachowskis’ imagination had gone. An earlier chase through a train station — with Morpheus and Trinity hot on the heels of some seedy-looking character from Central Casting — is like a hundred other chases you’ve seen.

It all ends with a rain-soaked mano-a-mano between Neo and Smith; the latter, of course, has replicated himself a hundredfold, but even his clones (literally) stand around on the sidelines while Good and Evil duke it out. Meanwhile, back in Zion, the new concept of an olive branch between the humans and the machines is explored. “How long will this peace last?” someone says. “Until Warner Bros. has another string of expensive flops and needs another Matrix sequel,” I answered.