Archive for February 2007

The Number 23

February 23, 2007

Imagine my surprise to learn that The Number 23 has nothing, in fact, to do with the number 23. Like many another “meaningful” numeral, 23 has vexed the insufficiently busy for years; the phenomenon even has a name — the 23 Enigma. While it allowed for a creepy (and sometimes tasteless) marketing campaign by New Line Cinema — everything from Caesar’s stab wounds to your mother-in-law’s birthdate can somehow be traced back to 23 — it doesn’t add up to much in the movie. The film isn’t even finally about one man’s obsession with 23; it’s a generic twist-ending thriller in which the meaning of 23, and all else, recedes into absurdity.

With a director like Joel Schumacher (whose past work, to put it kindly, has gone over the top) and a star like Jim Carrey (ditto), The Number 23 should’ve been a guilty-pleasure thriller whose style is as loopy as its premise (think of Dead Again or Shattered, or much of Brian De Palma’s output). But Schumacher is in his clenched, “realistic” mode here, and Carrey gives a grim, exhausted performance that would better suit a more serious movie. He’s expressive exactly once here, when he tosses a noose onto the floor with a film noir flourish. Unlike Robin Williams, who has been down this look-Ma-I’m-a-psycho road, Carrey’s mind doesn’t seem to be racing; his body is. His manic charge is all physical. His body is his tool, and when he can’t use it (as he did, much more expressively, in his best serious effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) he’s a void.

Carrey is Walter Sparrow, a vaguely depressed animal-control officer. Walter runs across an ominous dog named Ned, who bites him and leads him to a cemetery — to one gravestone in particular. Remember that, because nothing in this sort of movie is random. Neither is the fact that Walter’s wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen) buys him a book called The Number 23, packed with details that seem uncomfortably close to Walter’s life. Purportedly fiction, it’s about a detective named Fingerling, who plays the saxophone and dallies a lot with femmes fatales with names like Fabrizia and Suicide Blonde. (Carrey plays Fingerling in the segments we see from the book, looking like he’s in an In Living Color spoof of film noir.) Walter soon grows obsessed with 23, seeing it or permutations of it everywhere, while stray dogs everywhere presumably frisk about uncaught.

I’ve been as harsh on Joel Schumacher as anyone, but he proved in Phone Booth that he can pull it together and deliver a trim, effective thriller. Then again, Schumacher had a script from old hand Larry Cohen; here he’s got one from first-timer Fernley Phillips, who seems to have sprinkled the 23 Enigma stuff onto a standard-issue psychodrama and not bothered to tie it all together. Schumacher’s work here seems dispirited and sour when it isn’t simply bland, and for once in my life I yearned for the madcap Schumacher of those awful Batman films, which at least came off as though the director was having fun (even if we weren’t). And if you’re not going to have fun making, or watching, a thriller, what’s the point?

Everything in The Number 23 is locked — mathematically, you could say — into the big reveal at the end. Since there aren’t many places for this sort of thriller to go, you guess where it’s going pretty easily. And it’s a big letdown after the first half, which promises a dark portrait of a man who gets numerologically in over his head. 23 is treated here as if it were a mental virus, infecting everyone who hears about it and making them run around in vicious circles. But really it has no relevance to the Thing That’s Being Hidden, which has more to do with garden-variety jealousy and the idiocy of someone discovering a bloody corpse and picking up a bloody knife. Then there’s that damn dog Ned, who keeps turning up, and a skeleton discovered in a park, and a scene where Walter mails 23 empty boxes. This movie is insane, and deserved an insane approach. What it gets is a director and cast treating it with ridiculous sincerity.

Ghost Rider

February 16, 2007

Ghost Rider, which concerns a motorcycle stunt rider whose head turns into a flaming skull when night falls, is exactly the kind of movie that would’ve delighted me when I was twelve and watching it on cable. So I put myself in that mindset for two hours, and I report back as a mildly embarrassed 36-year-old whose younger counterpart enjoyed himself. There’s no use denying it: Ghost Rider is some bad fun if you’re in the right mood, and a large part of the credit goes to Nicolas Cage, who also has easy access to his inner delighted twelve-year-old.

The reason that Oscar winner Nicolas Cage is playing a cursed, leather-wearing biker with a flaming skull is that he thinks it’s way cool. A longtime fan of the Marvel comic books on which the film is based, he isn’t slumming at all; he never is, really. Cage throws himself into every film with equal passion and curiosity no matter how dumb or unworthy it is; he is perhaps the least ironic movie star since James Stewart, and he plays reckless stunt rider Johnny Blaze as a man haunted by his own youthful deal with the devil (an attempt to save his father from dying of cancer). Since this is Nicolas Cage, Johnny also has quirks like eating jelly beans out of a plastic cocktail cup and revving himself up pre-show by turning on the stereo and blasting…the Carpenters.

Soon, the devil (Peter Fonda, one of the original Easy Riders, in a witty casting coup) comes calling and turns Johnny into Ghost Rider, a sort of bounty hunter who can ride his flaming bike up and down skyscrapers. Ghost Rider’s mission is to defeat the devil’s son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) and his trio of demon minions whose powers are based on earth, wind and water (because Ghost Rider is fire — get it?). These minions are called Gressil, Wallow and Abigor, though I amused myself by renaming them Alvin, Simon and Theodore. In any event, Ghost Rider dispatches the elemental chipmunks pretty easily; he has a harder time working Roxanne (Eva Mendes), Johnny’s teenage flame (ha) turned TV reporter, into his busy schedule.

There’s not much going on with Eva Mendes (though she has a piquant moment when, stood up by Johnny yet again at a restaurant, she asks a gay waiter if she’s pretty), but Nicolas Cage approaches the romantic scenes as if Roxanne were Johnny’s most fearsome adversary, a woman who has his heart but keeps her own in a vault. Again, it’s all due to what Cage brings to the material; certainly the hack writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (who previously brought Marvel’s Daredevil to the screen) is lost in the scenes that don’t involve leather, chains, and fire. I don’t know if Johnson has much of a future as a filmmaker, but a bright career as a designer of bondage-themed nightclubs beckons if he wants it.

Sam Elliott is along for the ride, too, as a character named The Caretaker, who has all the answers, as Sam Elliott often does. His presence gives Ghost Rider the tone of a neo-western, peppered with equal amounts of ominous guitar twang and classic arena rock; the movie should go over well in the NASCAR states. Though I’d specifically requested no more wound-stitching scenes after Pan’s Labyrinth and Hannibal Rising, Columbia obviously didn’t get my sternly worded memo, since we’re treated to a scene of Sam Elliott stitching up Nicolas Cage after a particularly strenuous night on the town. Other than that, Ghost Rider is perfectly watchable and just as perfectly forgettable, ideal for the boob tube someday when you’re twelve.

Hannibal Rising

February 9, 2007

By now, many reviewers of Thomas Harris’ novel Hannibal Rising and now the movie version have quoted Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s words to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs: “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.” He could have been lying, of course. But the “new” Lecter story — which is really an old one, a prequel detailing Hannibal’s early years — does, in fact, reduce him to a set of influences. What is it that compels creators of iconic villains — George Lucas is another — to return their malign babies to the crib and then put them on the couch? Thank God Arthur Conan Doyle died before retroactively describing Moriarty’s childhood trauma involving a deerstalker cap.

Harris wrote the script for Hannibal Rising first, then upgraded it to an occasionally amusing novelization, published three months ago. In it, we learn that Hannibal is of Lithuanian blood, and that his entire family was caught in the crossfire of World War II. Only the child Hannibal and his beloved little sister Mischa were left alive, and soon enough, when some scummy Nazi collaborators discovered them in hiding, only Hannibal was left. It seems the starving Eurotrash cooked and ate poor little Mischa, which might not explain the adult Hannibal’s cannibalistic tendencies, though a meant-to-be-shocking revelation late in the game clarifies things.

For an absolutely unnecessary movie, Hannibal Rising is handsomely appointed, lushly if unimaginatively directed by Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring). You can sometimes sense Webber’s longing for more elegant material with far fewer beheadings; his handling of the violence, when he is forced to stage it, feels like a depressed capitulation to the presumptive audience’s demands for gore. A sequence in which the teen Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) takes a sword to a leering French butcher who has insulted Hannibal’s Japanese aunt Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) plays out against a lake dappled by pristine sunshine; it’s preceded by a rather contemptuous bit in which the butcher guts a fish and dumps the entrails into the water and right into our faces. Here, Webber seems to say, there’s your blood and guts. Eat that with your popcorn.

Despite being packed with incident and feeling absurdly telescoped (Hannibal seems to take a very fast track to med school), the film moves glacially, with the only points of interest being Hannibal’s vengeful tracking down of the men who ate his sister. The 24-year-old French actor Gaspard Ulliel, perhaps best known for A Very Long Engagement, duplicates Anthony Hopkins’ smug, mocking sangfroid nicely enough but most often comes off as a skinny kid trying to be diabolical. The Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, who was the raffish Spike in Notting Hill and here plays the Nazi wannabes’ leader Grutas with fine crude malice, supplies the kind of unapologetic psychotic vibe the movie desperately needs but can’t get from Ulliel. We should feel that the final revelation pushes Hannibal from simple vigilante to hopelessly insane monster, but all Harris can come up with is a rewrite of Darth Vader’s infamous “Nooooo!” from Revenge of the Sith. These movies take cinema back to its melodramatic origins when women were tied to railroad tracks — yes, there is a variation of that here, too — and men howled their anguish to the skies. It’d be charming if it worked.

Impeccably cultured, and better than anyone at anything, Hannibal is the snob as serial killer. Some critics have always been bothered by the juxtaposition; I was one of the few defenders of Harris’ 1999 novel Hannibal and its 2001 adaptation, finding it a fiendish, prankish exercise in Jacobean shock-horror (the brain-eating, the intestines going splat onto the Italian sidewalk). But Hannibal Rising, more than any of the other Lecter films, plays like a gussied-up splatter flick, with the expected money shots including a knife driven up into a man’s chin and through the top of his head, and a stitches-without-anesthesia showstopper filmed in wince-inducing close-up (after this and Pan’s Labyrinth, I’d just as soon not see needle and thread near flesh anytime soon, thanks). If Hannibal Rising can be reduced to a set of influences, it would be the young-Vito scenes in The Godfather Part II and something like Terror Train, a mix nowhere near as fun as it sounds.