Archive for April 2005

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

April 29, 2005

You will find few visions this year as amiably daft as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a movie that wants only to hop through time and space while stopping only occasionally for a laugh. The fan base for the source material — Douglas Adams’ saga was a BBC radio show, a series of books, and a BBC television series before this film — is at least as rabid as that of The Lord of the Rings, and even before the movie’s release the Internet seethed with complaints and praise in equal hyperbolic measure. As a casual fan of the Hitchhiker’s universe (I read the books in high school, and enjoyed the radio show when I caught up with it recently), I found the film far too busy and insecure, as if the filmmakers could feel the fanboys breathing down their necks. The movie catches the mad tumble of incident in the book, and some of the wordplay, but not nearly enough of it.

Douglas Adams excused himself from this plane of existence a few years ago, and if he were still alive he might’ve told the director, first-timer Garth Jennings, and credited co-scripter Karey Kirkpatrick to ease up a bit and let the movie breathe. Adams himself changed the story a bit for each new incarnation, and a few of the additions in the new movie are reportedly his. But the fun of this material isn’t the destination, it’s the trip. Adams filtered philosophy through a surreal P.G. Wodehouse style, letting his characters ramble on (the radio show worked best for this). The movie, powered by expensive visual effects, has less time for wit and becomes a borderline exhausting, plot-centered experience. And the plot was never the appeal of Hitchhiker’s Guide.

The premise remains the same: everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is whisked away from Earth by his alien friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) instants before it’s annihilated to make way for a hyperspace pass (satirically mirroring Arthur’s earlier crisis when contractors want to knock down his house to make way for a bypass). They meet up with various quirky characters, including the arrogant double-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), his sort-of girlfriend Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and the perpetually depressed Marvin the Paranoid Android (Alan Rickman does a pitch-perfect job of Marvin’s voice). They’re all pitted against the surly Vogons, who destroyed Earth in the first place.

Hitchhiker’s teems with divertissements, some of which are pleasurable; it’s hard to dislike a movie in which one of the heroes gets brain power from lemon juice. And Stephen Fry is on hand as the voice of the Guide, a book that contains everything you need to know about the galaxy. Dolphins, an insanely chipper computer, sighing doors, a massive supercomputer named Deep Thought (voice by Helen Mirren) whose answer to the question of the meaning of life is, famously, 42 — all this and more, rattling around inside a sci-fi farce that, as others have pointed out, feels more like reheated Galaxy Quest than like Douglas Adams. Some will loathe it, some will go back for more; I felt rather indifferent, though the Jim Henson Workshop’s rendition of the Vogons is dazzling in its physical detail.

Otherwise, the movie’s vision of otherworldly realities lacks wonder and awe; it’s all backdrop for wacky hijinks, and the soul of the film is not poor beleaguered Arthur Dent or even the morose Marvin, but the aggressively nitwitted Zaphod Beeblebrox. Playing against mostly deadpan co-stars (particularly Zooey Deschanel, whose apparent refusal to commit to the material is irritating), Sam Rockwell goes way over the top, and though an over-the-top Rockwell is usually fine news, here it isn’t. Rockwell’s crude performance becomes a comment on how Americanized and Disney-ized the movie feels. I got the sense that, if not for the success of the British-inflected Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, Hitchhiker’s Guide might have been cravenly made with an all-American cast, and wouldn’t have been all that much different from what we’re now getting. As it is, three of the five main characters (if you count Marvin) have nothing resembling a British accent. That’s Hitchhiker’s Guide ’05 in a nutshell, I think: it’s still sort of British, but it’s lost its accent.

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The Interpreter

April 22, 2005

Nobody seems to have slept much in The Interpreter, a dour and serious-minded political thriller that makes the case for diplomacy over violence — which doesn’t make for a terribly exciting thriller. In any event, everyone in the movie pulls all-nighters, out of duty or habit, watching or being watched, and fretting ceaselessly about past and possible future traumas. The movie could be called National Insecurity. The motor for this thriller is a feeble one: A bloody-handed African dictator is threatened with assassination, but because he’s not sitting on billions of dollars worth of oil, the U.S. Secret Service moves heaven and earth to protect him.

The dictator isn’t the only one needing protection. Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), an African by birth and an interpreter at the United Nations, overhears a possible plot to whack the dictator. Silvia takes this information to the Secret Service, who, in the person of recent widower Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, gray of hair and face), is skeptical at first. Soon, though, Silvia attracts the wrong kind of attention; a shadowy assassin begins tailing her, and she has mysterious connections to the dictator. It’s all enough to keep Sean Penn up all night. As low-key here as he was keyed-up in Mystic River, Penn gives an implosive performance without much inner life; it feels like a contractual obligation, though, to be fair, the many-handed script doesn’t give him much to play with, other than a vaguely amusing running almost-joke wherein he keeps calling a pair of agents “Lewis and Clark.”

High-class to a fault, and well-cast in every supporting role (the roster includes no fewer than four veterans of HBO’s late, great prison drama Oz), The Interpreter nevertheless burns with a very low flame, powered less by thrills than by its high-minded message, helpfully spelled out by Silvia in a monologue about how people deal with rage and grief where she comes from. The movie, I understand, has been in the works for years, and what possibly started as a down-and-dirty thriller that would never have gotten permission to shoot in the actual U.N. building (as this movie did) became, after 9/11 and various pre-emptive wars, a Big Statement on the importance of the U.N. as peacekeepers. It’s a useful message just now, yes, but thrillers aren’t the best couriers.

Part of what stops the movie up is its inevitable white liberal guilt. When you get down to it, what we have here is white (skinned) knights racing to the rescue of a vicious black ruler, whose reign is threatened by two other corrupt black guys. The Interpreter touches very lightly on the racial issue, to the point of sanctimony. But the unavoidable subtext is that whites, preferably American, know what’s good for everyone else on the planet. There’s a bitter nod to geopolitical reality, though, when Keller’s boss (played by director Sydney Pollack) notes that, with America’s world popularity at an all-time low, it wouldn’t look good for a dictator to get killed in our country, especially one we don’t like.

As a director, Pollack seems more interested in windy drama than in thrilling the audience; the movie is overlong and underpowered, with a mid-movie bus explosion tossed in reportedly to spice things up and acknowledge the spectre of terrorism. (Why the perpetrator is allowed to leave the bus when not one but two undercover agents are on board is a question for a better script.) Fans of the snarky Catherine Keener, intriguingly cast here as Keller’s partner, can look forward to some entertainment value, particularly the politely clenched way she addresses a stripper who’s lap-dancing a visiting dignitary. Keener is the movie’s only connection to humor, but she’s not around nearly enough, and the bulk of it is given over to Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman mourning their respective losses. If you want to make a serious film about human-rights abuses and the U.N.’s role in policing them, you make one, without the clichéd backstories and the exploding bus. If you want to make a thriller, you forget most of the above — Hitchcock sure did — and focus on danger and intrigue. The effort to play it both ways must’ve kept the screenwriters up all night, too.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

April 15, 2005

According to George Lutz — who, along with his (now-deceased) wife Kathy and his three stepchildren, spent 28 days in a Long Island house before fleeing into the night — you shouldn’t trust anyone’s account of that month except his own. Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror and the 1979 movie it inspired, Lutz said, were filled with exaggerations and outright lies; and the new remake, he has charged, is no more “based on a true story” than was the original film. Other people, over the years, have called Lutz’s entire story a hoax, maintaining that there was no haunting. Who to believe? Certainly not the 2005 version, which I found flatly unbelievable even by horror-film standards.

It’s nice that Hollywood has taken my advice and remade a bad movie (the 1979 version hasn’t aged well) instead of tarnishing the memory of good movies. But producer Michael Bay and screenwriter Scott Kosar, who previously took a giant dump on the horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre by giving it an uncalled-for do-over, don’t even improve on the clumsy first film. The remake does get one thing right: Ryan Reynolds as George Lutz has more humor and humanity than big, bearded James Brolin did. But George’s transformation from healthy stepdad to axe-fondling psycho happens too abruptly — 89 minutes don’t leave much time for a plausible, gradual personality change. And because this movie takes George much further than either the book or the previous film did — to the point of active murderous intent — we wonder why Kathy (Melissa George) doesn’t run out on him long before the tipping point.

The Lutzes move into the huge Long Island house despite the murders that happened there the previous year, because a house this good and this cheap doesn’t come along every day. We only get an intermittent sense, though, that their chief reason for sticking with the house is financial and not, say, stupid. Stephen King, writing about the 1979 film in Danse Macabre, posited the real secret of the movie’s success: it was about money troubles. Toilets overflowing with muck, doors and windows that stick — these are common householder frustrations. King also singled out the scene where James Brolin searches in vain for the money his brother-in-law set aside for his wedding caterer but then lost (the house apparently ate it). Brolin and Margot Kidder were an older, mid-thirtyish couple; Reynolds and George come off like twentysomethings who could rebound easily from financial setbacks.

Instead, the movie adds layers onto the derangement of the family. As in the original, Kathy’s young daughter makes a new friend in Jodie, a spirit haunting the house. In 1979, Jodie was a pig-like demon-thing. Now, Jodie is like Samara from The Ring, and in a scene typical of the movie’s emphasis on the ugly over the truly scary, the ghost-girl forces a hapless babysitter to stick a finger inside the bullet hole in her head. A possessed, axe-wielding George meets up with the family dog, with bad results for the dog (a development the real Lutz is reportedly disgusted with). A wall in the cellar leads to a space where a demented reverend used to torture Indians to death. Like the Chainsaw remake, Amityville ’05 is less frightening than just unpleasant.

In the end, the legend of the Amityville house boils down to the fracture of the family: in the house’s original murders, the teenage Ronald Defeo shotgunned his entire family, and here George chases his stepkids around with an axe like a bargain-basement Jack Torrance in The Shining. The subtext here is that your stepdad resents you, and will kill you and your mom. It’s not for kids, but of course that doesn’t stop some people. At the screening I attended, I saw a moronic couple and their four-year-old daughter sitting a few rows down. On the way out, the “mother” complimented the little girl on not screaming during the movie: “Pretty good for a four-year-old.” Social conservatives like to crusade against corruptive entertainment, but what good does that do if “parents” blithely take their toddlers to crap like this? Why not just chase your four-year-old around with an axe and save the ticket money?

Sahara

April 8, 2005

The sight of Steve Zahn, of all people, posing on the poster of a $130 million adventure movie pleases me more than I can say. You might remember Zahn as the hapless stoner in Out of Sight, or any number of other quirky, harmless oafs. He’s the sidekick in Sahara, not the hero, but it’s still a kick to see him running around being heroic (even if he keeps losing his hat) or handling firearms as if he’s actually seen one before. The whole movie is a kick, actually. Along with 2004’s National Treasure, it may be the start of a promising new trend of family-friendly adventure flicks — popcorn movies that don’t wallow in violence and degradation in order to secure their buzz. (Not that there’s anything wrong with violence and degradation in the right hands, of course — Sin City is still there for us cheerful members of the Culture of Death.)

Sahara is an adaptation of one of the five hundred or so Dirk Pitt novels by Clive Cussler, who has created a merry band of treasure hunters who operate outside the government, bankrolled by a fat-walleted retired admiral (played here by William H. Macy, a thick stogie forever bisecting his face). Matthew McConaughey plays Dirk, perhaps flouting the Paramount marketing division, who might’ve liked the ads to read “Brad Pitt is Dirk Pitt.” McConaughey, who has seemed swamped and overly serious in large-scale films before (I tried and failed to locate his personality in U-571), ambles genially into this one with an untroubled and almost hippie-like vibe, a useful and amusing angle on a hero with a military background. Dirk and his best buddy Al Giordino (Zahn) travel the globe in search of treasure, and, y’know, it’s nice to think of Americans going overseas with an appetite for antiquities and not destruction.

Dirk suspects that a Civil War ironclad ship may have wound up somewhere in West Africa. Don’t even ask. Don’t ask about most things in Sahara, including how a World Health Organization doctor (Penelope Cruz) gets involved, and how a plague she’s researching may be connected to that old ship, and how nobody has found the ship when all you have to do to stumble across important clues is to kick a soccer ball into the right building. The movie has about as much to do with reality as Sin City does, though this film’s brand of fun prospers in sunshine and warm air, and benefits from a well-selected playlist of classic ’70s rock on the soundtrack. (McConaughey and Zahn are both veterans of Richard Linklater films, and every so often their exploits here, wedded to songs like “We’re an American Band,” helped me imagine what a big-budget desert adventure might look like in the hands of the director of Dazed and Confused.)

This is the feature debut of Breck Eisner, whose father is Disney head Michael Eisner. Appropriately for someone who seems to have been named after a shampoo, the younger Eisner delivers a clean and bubbly piece of work, with the action set-pieces striving for laughs more often than tension. Penelope Cruz sometimes seems to be in another movie, a more serious one where she has to look at icky dead bodies and put on her sad face, but the boys in the film have their share of jostling fun. How Dirk and Al get out of being chained to the bed of a truck is amusingly ingenious, as is what they do with a plane wreck they find in the desert. McConaughey and Zahn have a laid-back, good-ol’-boy rapport that slides almost imperceptibly into tough professionalism. Sometimes you want heroes you can worry about, because it raises the stakes and the tension, and sometimes you want heroes you don’t have to worry about because they have enough smarts and good humor to get through any situation. Dirk and Al are decidedly in the second category.

Sahara is the kind of movie that ends with helicopters and giant mirrors and flying cannonballs, yet finds room for a subtle comeuppance involving a glass of water. No one should be surprised that the heroes (and heroine) make it through to the end credits, if only because Paramount wants another franchise should Sahara‘s profits justify more movies. I have a quibble with the ending: We see a happily-ever-after scene of McConaughey and Cruz (now an item in real life) chilling out on a beach, but there’s no Steve Zahn in sight. What did Al do with his share of the treasure? Did he buy more hats to replace the ones he lost? It seems a glaring omission. Regardless, I’m rooting for Sahara to do well and spawn sequels, just so we can see Steve Zahn on the posters.

Kung Fu Hustle

April 8, 2005

Equal parts Bruce Lee and Chuck Jones, Kung Fu Hustle is one of the great nonsense movies — a smash-and-grab action farce madly in love with old Hollywood and old martial-arts flicks. The mastermind behind it all is Stephen Chow, whose 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer broke box-office records in Hong Kong; Miramax bought it for release in the States, but delayed it and then fumbled it in 2004 — but by then, lots of people (including me) had seen it on one import disc or another and eagerly awaited Chow’s next. Chow seems to have been given a much larger piggy bank this time; Kung Fu Hustle is a triumph of set design, taking us from the flea-bitten slum of Pig Sty Alley to the swanky atmosphere of what looks like 1930s Hong Kong. In these environments, the laws of physics no longer apply, if they ever did; characters leap, run at neck-breaking speed, bash each other through several walls with one blow. Weightless as a feather, the movie takes its cue from such gravity-defying works as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and then ramps it up into a comedy of excess.

Chow stars as Sing, a ne’er-do-well lockpick and thief who wants to be accepted into the fearsome Axe Gang — a group of toughs whose sartorial choices are a nod to both the Crazy 88s of Kill Bill and Bill the Butcher’s gang in Gangs of New York. The Axe Gang terrorizes everyone except the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a dirt-poor slum concealing some unlikely kung-fu masters. Humiliated by a run-in with said masters, the Axe Gang vows revenge, calling in a pair of hired killers whose main weapon is a deadly harp that generates spectral swords and skeletons. When that doesn’t work, the Beast (Leung Siu Lung) is called in — a mousy-looking fellow with a bad combover, who nevertheless wipes the floor with almost any adversary without thinking about it much. Only one person is fated to be the Master who can defeat the Beast, and that person is too busy trying (and hilariously failing) to ingratiate himself with the Axe Gang.

For most of the movie, Chow plays Sing as a grubby opportunist, an idealist turned bitter pessimist (“Good guys never win” was the lesson he took away from a youthful attempt at a Buddhist Palm defense against some bullies). His destiny is redemption, but it’s hard-won, and when Chow pulls out the stops and introduces the now-grown-up mute girl Sing tried to rescue as a boy, the Hollywood sap runs as thick as the implausibility of the stunts — Chow actually poses the two against a poster of Astaire and Rogers. And it works. It’s far from the only tip of the hat to Chow’s ancestors; during the climax, Sing goes through two changes of outfit that pay explicit homage to Bruce Lee, though Chow isn’t as serious-minded as Lee was. For instance, he gives a lot of screen time to the landlady (Qiu Yuen) and landlord (Wah Yuen) of Pig Sty Alley, who seem like comic-relief squabblers until the movie reveals more up their sleeves. Qiu Yuen, a staple of Hong Kong movies back in the ’70s, should become a fan favorite all over again; decked out in hair rollers and an ever-present cigarette, she’s so relentlessly irascible she’s funny, like Captain Lou Albano in Wise Guys.

The stuntwork here was supervised and choreographed by Master Yuen Wo Ping, the avatar of brutal cool (he designed the fights for Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, and the Matrix films). The spinning wirework of those films is just a hair away from comedy anyway, and Chow merrily pushes it into the realm of the absurd while sacrificing none of its beauty or dazzlement — or excitement. People in Hollywood spend a lot of money flailing around witlessly to achieve the anti-gravity of cartoons, seldom coming close to what Chow does here. The extensive CGI is used to heighten and then demolish reality. Flesh folds or flattens against fists; dozens of gang members scatter into the sky, sometimes kicked into each other. The tone is light but not callous — little blood is shed (except for a goofy one-off sight gag that tweaks the elevator scene in The Shining for no apparent reason). The most painful blow in the movie is when a sentimental-value lollipop is shattered.

Kung Fu Hustle comes (in this country) on the heels of two other movies that leave mundane reality far behind — Ong-Bak, in which Tony Jaa folds time and space all by himself, and Sin City, which takes place in some gleaming hellhole in Frank Miller’s head. Taken together — and they really should be shown together, if any imaginative movie-night programmers are listening — these films represent a restless and reckless energy powered by a love of what movies at their best can do: transfix, transport, and transcend. Blessed with the most fluid camerawork since Sam Raimi in his prime, and punctuated with stunning action sequences to match, Kung Fu Hustle is proof positive that whatever the future of movies may be, it certainly doesn’t have to be boring.

Sin City

April 1, 2005

The man is a sap — a rumpled Galahad, willing to throw it all over for a dame. He knows this, but it doesn’t stop him. He takes on the whole rotten world, or, at least, the world he knows — the city and all its crawling demons, the low-level thugs and the high-level cops, politicians and clergy who set them in motion. In the electrifying Sin City, a triptych of film noir taken directly from a series of graphic novels written and drawn by Frank Miller, there are three such men. They are different men — honest cop John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), hulking bruiser Marv (Mickey Rourke), and smooth criminal Dwight (Clive Owen) — but in essence, they’re the same man.

Miller’s stories take some getting used to. After making tons of money for the major comics companies — Marvel with Daredevil, DC with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Miller was ready for a project closer to his heart, an unabashed tribute to hard-boiled crime fiction. The Sin City books — there are seven in all — are drenched in Miller’s love of the genre, and the movie version, brought to life by Robert Rodriguez (who co-directed with Miller), is head over heels in love with Miller’s vision. The look of the film quotes extensively from Miller’s chiaroscuro drawings, with bits of color strategically disrupting the pristine black-and-white gloom. Remember how you used to copy the Sunday funnies by pressing a glob of Silly Putty onto the page? Rodriguez’ Sin City is a giant piece of cinematic Silly Putty, and it’s just as fun (and elastic) as that sounds.

After a brief prologue involving a slick Josh Hartnett encountering a red-draped Marley Shelton (this was the footage Rodriguez used to sell a wary Miller on his concept for the movie), we get a few minutes of “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein aging cop Hartigan seems to be thwarted in his attempt to save an 11-year-old girl from the degenerate scion (Nick Stahl) of a senator. We leave Hartigan for a while, and take up the story of Marv, “The Hard Goodbye,” in which the big lug obsessively tracks down the murderer of a hooker (Jaime King) who, despite his saucepan mug, gave him a memorable night in a heart-shaped bed. The tale proceeds and ends quite noir-ishly, with a pit stop in the realm of horror, as Marv faces off against a silent cannibal (Elijah Wood, as un-Frodo as he can get).

The handsomer but no less hard-bitten Dwight stars in the next story, “The Big Fat Kill,” in which someone dies who isn’t supposed to, threatening the delicate truce between the denizens of Oldtown (a section of Sin City owned and operated by armed-to-the-teeth hookers led by a feral Rosario Dawson) and the police. From there we segue back to “That Yellow Bastard,” wherein Hartigan rises from the almost-dead to protect the now-grown girl, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), from the genetically twisted remix of the sick freak he thought he’d killed.

Everyone involved in Sin City not only understands this lurid universe but has a grand time playing in it. They’re fully committed to speaking Miller’s sometimes stilted crime-novel dialogue; it’s the language of blood, revenge, desperation. Of all the actors — including Rutger Hauer in a tiny but creepy turn as a despicable cardinal — Mickey Rourke most viscerally gets the soul of noir. His Marv is a tough-guy sentimentalist who has certain guidelines — “I don’t hurt girls” — but takes to brawling and torture like a natural-born psycho, all the while popping pills meant to keep him from getting “confused.” Rourke submerges himself in this shambling mass of violence without a hint of ego; his comeback deserves to begin here.

Sin City is a gleaming pop revelation, a completely realized vision in a way that the similar but sadly uninvolving Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow wasn’t. Robert Rodriguez is a lifelong comics geek and tireless DIY digital filmmaker, and Sin City is what he’s been getting at all these years. His sense of play is inseparable from Miller’s; the books have the charming feel of a guy doodling stories that excite him, and so does the movie. Miller loves gun-toting, sword-swinging women, and Sin City gives him the silent, deadly Miho (Devon Aoki) to conjure with — she’s the mirror image of the wordless cannibal, and she could easily move from Oldtown into the world of Kill Bill. (Rodriguez’ buddy Quentin Tarantino, the maestro behind Kill Bill, dropped by the set and directed a morbidly funny scene between Dwight and a sicko played over-the-top by Benicio Del Toro.) Sin City doesn’t touch mundane reality for a minute, confining itself to a hermetic yet teeming universe of knights in trenchcoats, dragons with badges, and damsels creating distress. As a work of pulp-fiction devotion, it’s the most vital American film in years.