Archive for March 2005

Guess Who

March 25, 2005

The time may be right for a farcical remake of 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I’m not sure Guess Who is it. The new movie, starring Bernie Mac as a grouchy black dad who disapproves of his daughter’s white boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher), gets hardly any comic mileage out of racial tension — the well-meaning original film got more laughs out of the discomfiture of liberal whites confronted with the prospect of a black son-in-law. If I were going to make a go-for-broke remake, I’d cast Dave Chappelle and Gwyneth Paltrow as the young lovers, and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as the white liberal parents. Switching the races just pretends that there’s no difference in dynamic between a black man marrying into a white family and a white man marrying into a black family.

Sidney Poitier proved (back there in the ’60s, when this could still come as a surprise to some viewers) that a black man could be respectable and eloquent. Ashton Kutcher just proves the easy stereotypes about goofy white guys. He and Bernie Mac have an occasionally funny combative rapport, but it’s essentially the same friction that Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro had in Meet the Parents. We have no reason to doubt Bernie Mac when he says he has no problem with Kutcher’s whiteness — he just senses that Kutcher is lying about something (and he’s right). Mac could be any disapproving father, and Kutcher could be any gawky guy who digs himself deeper the harder he tries to ingratiate himself.

He digs the deepest during the film’s dinner scene, in which Mac goads Kutcher into telling various “black jokes,” and everyone at the table laughs gamely until Kutcher tells one that crosses the line. None of the jokes are funny, though, not in the way that some racist jokes have a scabrous, anti-PC humor (the same way that, say, dead-baby jokes are funny because of their very wrongness). Here’s a comedy premised on racial unease, and it’s too timid to uncork actual racial humor. One can only imagine what Richard Pryor in his prime would’ve done with the scene.

Most of the laughs come from Bernie Mac’s Percy Jones, a bull pawing the ground, reduced to a meek cat by his no-nonsense wife Marilyn (Judith Scott). His daughter Theresa (Zoë Saldaña), an artist, fell in love with young Wall Street tiger Simon (Kutcher) because, we’re told, opposites attract and she is what he isn’t. I didn’t see much else going on between them other than giggly, furtive moments of goofing around together. I can believe they’d get along great, but they don’t look at each other with anything like the adoration with which Sidney Poitier regarded Katharine Houghton and vice versa, or, for that matter, the exasperated but deep love between Percy and Marilyn. Kutcher is simply too lightweight to communicate love, and Zoë Saldaña is a rather dull actress; a better fit might have been the funky Kellee Stewart, who plays Theresa’s sister Keisha, palpably enjoying the development that whatever she does, it won’t be as bad as when Theresa brought home a white boy.

Does it matter? “Oh, it’s gonna matter,” pronounces the couple’s black cabbie — but it really doesn’t, not in this movie, where Percy Jones has no prejudice to get over. His suspicion of Simon might make better sense if we’d been told that Percy had gotten shafted by white guys in business, or been kept from promotion, or suffered some sort of racist treatment; but we hear about nothing of the sort. Percy does have a different kind of prejudice, unquestioned by the movie itself; the mincing coordinator of Percy and Marilyn’s anniversary party (Robert Curtis Brown) is, it turns out, a metrosexual and married man, but Percy continues to doubt the man’s sexuality, blustering about taking his pants off in front of him. A lot of straight men may not have a problem with gays in the abstract, but will still react viscerally when confronted with actual gayness, or suspected gayness. Which raises a premise for a much more relevant-to-these-times version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: What if Theresa brought home a white girl?

The Ring Two

March 18, 2005

The Ring mythology, at this point, is almost as dense as The Ring of the Nibelung or that other famous work about a ring. It all started with a novel by Kôji Suzuki, and as a reviewer on the Internet Movie Database puts it, “There are many different films, television series, books, comic books, etc., based on the ‘Ring Universe,’ and it’s very complicated trying to sort them out.” It’s just as complicated to work out the lineage of The Ring Two. It’s a sequel to the 2002 American remake of the original 1998 Japanese Ringu, and it follows more or less the same plot as Ringu‘s 1999 sequel. Furthermore, the director of Ringu and Ringu 2, Hideo Nakata, has been recruited by DreamWorks to helm The Ring Two. Got all that?

Not that it matters much. The appeal of The Ring to American teenagers (its biggest audience) was its urban-legend premise — the idea that a spooky videotape passed from kid to kid could kill you within seven days of watching it. In The Ring Two, the malevolent little-girl spirit Samara returns, but this time she isn’t content to spread the word about the way her mother murdered her. No, this time she wants a new mommy. So she settles on Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), who thought she’d laid Samara’s soul to rest in the first film. Rachel has moved far away from Seattle, finding work as a copy editor at another newspaper (which affects the plot so little that she might as well have a job at D’Angelo’s). Her son Aidan (David Dorfman, as eerily waxlike as before) starts running a lower-than-normal temperature. Strange watery things happen. Samara, it becomes clear, wants to inhabit Aidan’s body.

If Aidan suddenly took up an interest in the Powerpuff Girls, the movie would be a tad more fun. As it is, Aidan has such a ghostly flat affect to begin with that the only noticeable change is that he starts calling Rachel “Mommy” instead of “Rachel.” Aside from a borderline ludicrous sequence in which Rachel and Aidan, driving on a back road, are assaulted by a group of irate deer — a nod to the maddened horse in The Ring, I guess — there’s very little fun to go around in The Ring Two, and scarcely any suspense or terror. The movie discards its urban-legend frisson and becomes about the tribulations of single mothers — Rachel, who at one point seems ready to drown Aidan just to force Samara out, and also a madwoman named Evelyn (Sissy Spacek in a walk-through), who, it’s revealed here, is Samara’s true birth mother and tried to drown her as a tot.

“Fear comes full circle,” promise the ads for The Ring Two, and we could indeed have had a cumulative horror classic if the promise were real — if the legacy of child-murder repeated itself, Jack Torrance-like, in Rachel. I can envision a Ring Two in which the real victim of possession is Rachel, who is tricked by evil Samara into thinking her son is corrupted by the ghost, and goes insane and actually drowns the boy — or is caught attempting to, like Evelyn, and gets locked away for life. That would give the movie a point, and a horrific punch, that it doesn’t have.

Instead, The Ring Two becomes banal and literal, with Rachel getting sucked into the videotape’s reality, where she goes down that old well again and sloshes around in that filthy water (Naomi Watts, please fire your agent) and confronts Samara one last time. If we’re lucky. Forgive the pun, but maybe Hideo Nakata has gone back to this well one too many times. His work here is utterly uninspired, with no true scares to speak of except for two moments when a victim’s fear-disfigured corpse turns up (and even that was done better in The Ring). I can’t imagine anyone being freaked out by The Ring Two the way even impressionable teens were spooked by The Ring. And can we have a moratorium on girl ghosts with long black hair covering their faces? It worked fine seven years ago, but now you just wonder why they don’t trip over something.


March 11, 2005

Bruce Willis does movies like Hostage to keep his game sharp, but he used to be sharper. The obvious parallel is to Die Hard, Willis’ entry into big-stakes cinema almost twenty years ago (can it really be?). There, he carried some of his brash Moonlighting persona into what could’ve been a standard-issue action hero, and he was surrounded by fine, vivid actors, not least Alan Rickman in a brilliant sneering-Eurotrash performance no one has quite matched since. Hostage is sorely lacking in divertissements and wit and all-around fun; it’s what you might call a tense, taut thriller, and it raises the ante by endangering children — which, for those of us who know the unwritten Hollywood rule that kids must be unscathed, doesn’t exactly keep us on the edge of our seats.

Hostage is reasonably competent and breathlessly paced; the director, Florent Siri (who has filmed the “cut scenes” in various Tom Clancy video games), keeps things cracking. But the story, taken from a novel by Robert Crais, is by-the-numbers Hollywood crisis management. Willis is Jeff Talley, a former L.A. hostage negotiator who fails to rescue a child — which seems to violate the unwritten rule, but it’s really just a Past Trauma that explains why Jeff shaves his beard and skull and demotes himself to a desk cop in a smaller county.

Wouldn’t you know, though, that Jeff gets pulled into another hostage situation? Three amoral teenagers, led by a sociopathic Ben Foster (from Six Feet Under), invade the house of a rich accountant (Kevin Pollak) in search of money. What they don’t know is that Pollak possesses a DVD containing data that shadowy men will kill to get — and these same men kidnap Jeff’s wife and daughter to force him to capture the disc and bring it to them. The disc is disguised as a DVD of the 1943 Gene Tierney movie Heaven Can Wait, leading to a mildly amusing movie-geek moment when a character has to choose between that and the 1978 Warren Beatty movie by the same name.

So Jeff has three kids to worry about — his own (played by Willis’ daughter Rumer), and Pollak’s two kids, a semi-goth chick and a resourceful little boy who seems to have the run of the whole house via secret passageways. (They were left there, I assume, by a good-hearted set designer.) Yes, the movie is Die Hard meets Panic Room, though with none of the sleek fun of the former or the claustrophobic dread of the latter. The teenagers hold shaky command of the house, undermined by their own nervousness, except for ice-blooded Ben Foster, who turns up in security-camera footage from the scene of an earlier crime, shooting a convenience-store clerk and pausing to watch him die. (If he’s identifiable from the videotape, why wasn’t he caught?)

Jeff has to do some fancy footwork, flouting the local authorities to negotiate with the other two scared criminals; at one point he arranges an elaborate ruse to get them out of the house so that Pollak’s little boy can sneak around and nab the DVD, but why doesn’t he just ask the teenagers for it (instead of going through the pretense of demanding their stolen money in exchange for a getaway helicopter)? And who exactly are the shadowy men who want the data? If Hostage stays with you at all, it’s because it inspires many parking-lot questions. You know the type; you’re walking to the car with your friends and you keep saying “Yeah, but…”

Be that as it may, Hostage is acceptable for what it is — a no-frills vehicle for Bruce Willis, playing a man who may be too sensitive to be a cop. (He cries several times, though a gelatin tear sticks to his eyelid at one point and doesn’t fall, and then in other shots it vanishes, and then it’s there again. It’s a goofy continuity error to let slip nowadays, when the filmmakers can easily wipe it in the computer.) Willis has gathered some gravitas over the years, to the point where his antics in something like The Whole Nine Yards seem like a surprising change of pace. But I miss the old Bruno, the guy who crawled through air vents in Die Hard (much like the little boy does in this film) and said “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” Remember that? Yeah, you do. Will you remember anything Willis says in Hostage seventeen years from now? No, you won’t.

The Jacket

March 4, 2005

If not for a group of boisterous teenagers sitting a row away, I might have fallen asleep at The Jacket. I suppose I owe them some thanks, as well as film editor Emma Hickox, who has fed the movie into the same smash-cut Cuisinart every other thriller seems to get run through. Lulled into complacency, or perhaps drowsiness, we’re rudely jolted by a strobe of blood, screams, penguins (for all we know). This stylistic barrage comes to us courtesy of Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), a veteran of the first Gulf War, who has baffling flashbacks, flash-forwards, flash-sideways — he has a lot of flashes, is what I’m saying.

Shot in the head by an innocent-looking Iraqi boy, Jack somehow survives, and a year later winds up hitchhiking in Vermont, where he spots a retching alcoholic (Kelly Lynch) and her young daughter near their broken-down truck. He fixes the truck, then gets picked up by a guy (Brad Renfro) who, we soon learn, has a problem with cops. Something happens, and Jack finds himself institutionalized, at the mercy of experimental shrink Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), who likes to strait-jacket his patients and lock them in a morgue drawer. Cooped up in there, Jack becomes unstuck in time; he travels, either in time or in his head, to the year 2007 — fifteen years into his future — and screenwriter Massy Tadjedin doesn’t have the wit to have Jack discover that another Bush is in the White House presiding over another war in Iraq.

2007 doesn’t look much different from 1992; nobody Jack meets has an iPod or a photo phone, two things that would’ve looked fanciful if we’d seen them in a 1992 movie. In any event, Jack happens across Jackie (Keira Knightley), the girl whose mom’s truck he fixed in 1992. She’s all grown up now, miserably waitressing and then retiring to her trailer for a date with the bottle. She doesn’t recognize Jack, though Adrien Brody’s rather distinctive proboscis renders that unlikely. Jack must persuade her that he’s really Jack and not the Jack Starks who, in an alternate timeline, died of a head trauma on New Year’s Day, 1993. Perhaps reading this bit of plot — it gets even more complicated — is making you feel as though you have a head trauma.

The Jacket is a morose and bleached-looking affair, with depressing music by Brian Eno to match. Structurally, it’s Slaughterhouse-Five meets The Butterfly Effect. It’s not an actors’ movie, though the eclectic cast — including an underused Steven Mackintosh as a doctor, Daniel Craig as a patient who says he’s in for attempted murder, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Jack’s more sympathetic shrink, and, bizarrely, Mackenzie Phillips as a sadistic nurse — do what they can. Brody has never been much inclined towards the mainstream, so it’s no surprise that his post-Oscar resumé is long on movies like this and Dummy, and he does most of the film’s emotional clean-and-jerk but looks worn out from the effort. Keira Knightley does the sort of thing we’ll probably be seeing Lindsay Lohan doing in a couple years — drinking, smoking, going topless, and generally distancing herself from Disney. She’s good at it, but I still have to remind myself I’m not watching Natalie Portman.

In all, it’s another Warner Independent film that seems to have little point and less of an audience (the studio branch’s Before Sunset was an exception). I wasn’t aware of a burning need for an unofficial remake of Jacob’s Ladder, in which Vietnam vet Tim Robbins had similar disturbing mind-trips. And since Jack’s experience in Iraq (which takes up less than five minutes of screen time) is fairly irrelevant to what else happens to him, it seems a bit distasteful to use it as the starting point for a hackneyed guess-what’s-real thriller. (At least 2004’s Manchurian Candidate remake used the Gulf War for spooky political resonance.) It’s in especially questionable taste given that we now have people coming home from the current Gulf War with comparable mental trauma — or not coming home at all. Not that anything should be verboten as a film subject, but if you’re going to supply a backdrop that keeps taking you out of the movie, you’d better make sure the movie is compelling enough to go back into.