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Volume 2, Number 8

This Week's Reviews:  The Whole Nine Yards, Sweet and Lowdown, Wonder Boys, Reindeer Games.

This Week's Omissions:  3 Strikes.



The Whole Nine Yards

(Dir: Jonathan Lynn, Starring Matthew Perry, Bruce Willis, Amanda Peet, Michael Clarke Duncan, Natasha Henstridge, Kevin Pollak, Rosanna Arquette, and Harland Williams)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Everyone has a guilty pleasure.  I've noticed that most cinephiles cite dumbed down action films that caught them off guard at the right time.  But mine are completely different, I've never sung the misunderstanding praises of Godzilla, Independence Day, or Armageddon, in fact I hated all those films.  Instead I tend to take dumb (really dumb) comedies as my guilty pleasures.

Take for example Casino Royale. This is a film hated by just about every since James Bond fan, but I have a great affinity towards this film.  Yes, I'll admit that there are many reasons to hate this film, but you know what, they are part of the reason that I love the film so much (for heaven's sake, the film made my top ten list for 1967).

But Casino Royale is a lesser known film, being intentionally forgotten by the James Bond fans that should embrace the film (they said it: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).  The film that is best know that I would call a guilty pleasure is Clue, a hilarious little film from the mid-eighties.  Clue has never been held on any pedestal, but it still brings me joy.  I'd say that I have seen the film more times than any other film in the history of cinema. Clue is the type of film that met a dismal future due to a dismal critical taking and box-office.  I still catch it on the Comedy Central network every once and a while, but it is so rare that I have not seen the film from beginning to end in a long time.

I'll be first to admit that Clue is no milestone of American filmmaking, much of the humor is so tongue-in-cheek that no one really catches where it is going.  And even the murder mystery is flimsy, hence the reason they could have three different endings.  Yet there is something there that makes me laugh.  I'd actually come nearer to watching parts of it again before various comedies of the late nineties that I liked.

So what does Clue have to do with The Whole Nine Yards?  Well, earlier in the year I saw the trailer for The Whole Nine Yards for the first time.  I found it to be a bit idiotic, with little redeeming features that might bring me to seeing it in the theatre.  I've seen Analyze This, Mickey Blue Eyes, and every episode of The Sopranos, I knew where it was going.  But on the tenth or so viewing of the trailer, I noticed a particular name in the closing credits flash.  I was ecstatic, there on the screen was "Directed by Jonathan Lynn."  Of course, no one understood why I was so happy, since they do not know Clue as well as I and that it was directed by a fellow named Jonathan Lynn.  Suddenly The Whole Nine Yards had chance, why not, it was from the guy that brought me Clue.

The film is about a guy named Oz (Perry) that must work with various unsavory characters after a known hitman (Willis) moves in next door to his Montreal home.  The hitman turned in some other characters that are now rather angry at him and calling for his blood.  They, of course, see Oz as a link to Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski, and send some people to get his cooperation.  Things would be a little easier if it were not for the fact that Oz's wife (Arquette) is on the look out for a hitman to kill Oz, and his secretary at his dental practice (Peet) is a such a fan of Jimmy's that she wants to become him.

Where Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes were nice quaint films about the Mafia, The Whole Nine Yards is a much more serious turn on the comedy.  Much of the film is thick black comedy that works only to the right tone.  Where the film picks up, around its second act, the film becomes much more disgruntled than before.  The Whole Nine Yards does not sell every line of comedy, but there are many more wins in the laugh count than expected losses.

The direction from Lynn has its moments, but more or less, never really takes the viewer away into this world (by the way, what was the reasoning for a Montreal setting; surely not so that Arquette could give one of the worst French accents in the history of time).  The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (who is the fellow behind the story for Romeo Must Die, of all things) has its perks, though many of the twists are a little too easy to see.

Most of what helps The Whole Nine Yards is in its cast, with Matthew Perry giving his best big screen work (I happen to enjoy him on the US television series Friends, but I have never found him remotely funny in a film).  Yes, he is more or less playing the exact same character as Hugh Grant in Mickey Blue Eyes, but Perry does a superior job, by selling vulnerability instead of that British twit thing Grant seems to have going.  Bruce Willis is highly likable in this, one of his better choices in this latter period of his career.  Amanda Peet and Michael Clarke Duncan are both great in their supporting roles, with Peet shining in a territory I had never seen from her before.

Still, however enjoyable the cast may have been (with the exception of the horrid Rosanna Arquette), I did not really feel that The Whole Nine Yards was a guilty enough pleasure for me to cuddle up with a Billy Joel album and watch to the smooth sounds of "We Didn't Start the Fire."


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Sweet and Lowdown

(Dir: Woody Allen, Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Brian Markinson, Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol, Vincent Guastaferro, Constance Shulman, and Kellie Overbey, and Appearances by Woody Allen, Ben Duncan, Nat Hentoff, and Douglas McGrath)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

There are many directors that I feel have incredible careers.  Names like Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick, Malle, all are directors that I feel have more or less only made films that were noteworthy achievements.  Notice that all those named were directors that varied their genres, never really situating on a single film type.  Such is also the case with Woody Allen.  It is easy to simply dismiss Allen as director of comedies, but many of his best films have been dramas and, most notably, seriocomedies.  Look at Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Interiors, they are all some serious films from this madcap genius.  I'll be first to sing the praises of zany comedies from Allen like Love and Death, Bananas, and Sleeper, but I'm also a big fan of his journeys into satire (the underrated Celebrity) and farce (the underseen Deconstructing Harry).  But when polled over my favorite Woody Allen film of all-time, I actually stated a rather unusual choice for Allen.  In the early eighties, he touched upon a mockumentary called Zelig, my choice for the best cinematically from Allen (for single laugh count, Love and Death and Sleeper are his best).  Zelig has been the only time that Allen has done so until now.

Sweet and Lowdown is another mockumentary, about another guy that lives in a world that is really too big for his shoes.  The protagonist of Sweet and Lowdown, guitar genius Emmett Ray, is so believable and so near true to live that I was almost convinced that there was really an Emmett Ray in music history.

One of the best choices that Allen makes in his story of Emmett Ray is that he has himself as an interviewee, telling of why he chose Ray as a subject.  There is a certain touch to the way Woody Allen says things, hence the reason that the films that he appears in work so often, as well as why Barbara Kopple's Wild Man Blues, a documentary about Allen on the European tour of his clarinet playing band.  Hearing Allen singing the praises of such an usual man (and fictitious to boot) gives weird credence to the words since Allen is, himself, a weird little man.

According to the film, Emmett Ray (Penn) was the second best jazz guitarist in history, only under Django Reinhardt, whose beautiful work has caused Ray to faint in all meetings.  Ray is another one of those struggling musical types in the 1920's and 1930's, using alcohol and women at every turn.  The only woman that ever really takes him off his feet is the woman that seems least destined to be with him, a young, vulnerable mute named Hattie (Morton).  There are other woman that touch Ray after Hattie, the posh socialite (Thurman), the young golddigger (Mol), but none of them ever really stack up to what Ray had with Hattie, a feeling of true love without any words.

Ray is one of the best characters this year, a meticulously chiseled mind of the nebbish proportions.  Penn gives some of his best work here, though there is nothing to make one think that Penn would ever give sub-par work.  Morton, who seems to get more accolades than anyone else in the film, pulls off the lost child perfectly; I was actually reminded of a girl I once knew who acted in the same ambivalent way (and she barely ever said anything either).  The rest of the supporting cast works, with Thurman and LaPaglia shining.

There are many moments in the film that reminded me why Allen is considered a great director as well as writer.  The whole recreation of Ray hiding in the back of LaPaglia's car to spy on Thurman, or at least the three different versions of the scene, is priceless, one of my favorite scenes this year.

Sweet and Lowdown is one of those likable films that brings a smile to your face.  No, there are no real moments of true comic, madcap genius.  But it is that variety that will keep Woody Allen in top form for the rest of his career.


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Wonder Boys

(Dir: Curtis Hanson, Starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Katie Holmes, Richard Thomas, and Rip Torn)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

It seems that every year there is some treat in the early months.  Films like Fargo, Braveheart, and Cookie's Fortune have made it into theatres in the final weeks of February, early part of March to the joy of film critics that are only treated to crap from studios at this time (though there are some great platform release Oscar films around this time for those of us outside of New York and Los Angeles).  Wonder Boys is this year's addition.  And I must admit that it is better than all those I just named, with the grand exception of Fargo.

Wonder Boys is the first film from Curtis Hanson since he surprised everyone with L.A. Confidential in 1997.  Hanson was never really considered that much of a director before then, having only made action-thrillers like The River Wild, Bad Influence, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but with L.A. Confidential, he swept away audiences and critics alike (the film was my choice for the best picture of 1997), picking up Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (winning the latter).  Like most directors who took the world by storm with a film, Hanson has made the good choice of spending time before making another film, one that will assuredly be compared to his previous success.  How many of us automatically compared Jackie Brown to Pulp Fiction?

And what a follow up it is.  Where L.A. Confidential worked as a drama with action tendencies, Wonder Boys is a drama in the clothing of a comedy.  The films could be no more different.  In fact, unlike most directors, Hanson does not even bring back any of his previous actors; to the best of my knowledge, Hanson has never worked with a single castmember before.  And what a cast he has brought together.  Few would consider Michael Douglas to be a lesser actor, but this is, in my mind, his best performance ever, he has never seemed this likable.  I happen to have a long stated adoration for Frances McDormand and Tobey Maguire, seeing the two of them here with Douglas is such a treat that it cannot be put into words.

Surprisingly Hanson chose not to write this film, having won Best Screenplay with Brian Helgeland for L.A. Confidential.  Instead Steven Kloves (writer director of The Fabulous Baker Boys) melded the script from the Michael Chabon novel, and he did a damn fine job at it too.

The film follows Grady Tripp, a novelist who has been sitting in the success of his first novel for years.  Everyone believes, including the English students he teaches at an unnamed Pittsburgh college, that he is merely sitting around enjoying the pleasures of fame.  But Grady is really trying to bring out his second novel.  The problem is that he cannot come to an end.  In fact when we meet Grady, he is ready for the 2122nd page of the novel.  He is constantly drunk, high, and uncaring.  Those that are considered his close friends and confidants feel like he is distanced from them; his wife has just left him and one of his best students is in the midst of an emotional breakdown.

And it is that certain student, James Leer (Maguire), that causes such a change in Grady.  There really seems to be nothing in his life, but everything suddenly becomes clear as he must save James from the emotional demons that haunt him.  There are others in these myriad moments in Grady's life:  the young student that would just as quickly jump in his bed as read his next novel (Holmes), the homosexual editor that awaits Grady's next novel and James' sexual conquest (Downey, Jr.), and the college magistrate who's baby he is carrying.

Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti give incredible camera work, and the sets from Jeanine Oppewall are superb.  All in all, Wonder Boys is one of the best films I've seen, the best so far this year.  In fact the last time I was this excited by a film this early in the year, the film turned out as my top film of the year and ninth of all-time (that title would be the omnipresent Fargo).


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Reindeer Games

(Dir: John Frankenheimer, Starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise, Clarence Williams III, Danny Trejo, James Hutson, Ashton Kutcher, Dennis Farina, and James Frain)

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BY: DAVID PERRY

Fans of the dumb action films of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer can rejoice, even the artsy action directors have delved into you territory.  Reindeer Games is one of the worst films I have seen this year (yes, I know that it is early, but I don't see film getting much worse any time soon).  It's bad enough that there are films from Jerry Bruckheimer every year (this year's entry is Gone in 60 Seconds), but was there any real reason that John Frankenheimer need be included into this exclusive society of dumb action film directors.  I happen to adore the work of Frankenheimer, The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz are classics, and The Burning Season and George Wallace are two of my favorite made-for-cable movies.  Hell, I even somewhat liked The Island of Dr. Moreau.  But there are no excuses for Reindeer Games, it is a Michael Bay actions film, masquerading in idiotic, and often implausible, plot twists (if you can actually buy the film's final twist, then it's time that you join the Chris Columbus fan club).

The direction is not horrible, some of the camera work from Frankenheimer and cinematographer Alan Caso work, especially in the film's early moody prison scenes (this is kind of weird considering that Caso was the director of photography for Ed and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland).  So there is little fault in Frankenheimer to some extent, beyond the fact that he chose to do the film.  The real downfall to this heist film is in the screenplay by Ehren Kruger.  I know that it was a mere month ago that I began work on the shrine to Kruger after seeing the Kruger penned Scream 3.  Now it is time for those shrine walls to come tumbling down.

I really hate films that think that they are incredibly smart, much beyond the intelligence of the audience.  Such was the case with Wild Things and Palmetto among others.  But those two films worked in their own way, there is little in Reindeer Games that could be referred to as "working."  Ehren Kruger did an incredible job with the screenplays for Arlington Road and Scream 3, both of which relied on some plot twists, but what kept those films going was the fact that, tough sometimes pushing it, the twists in those films were plausible.  Plus they were not twists specifically designed to cause the viewer to gasp in surprise (hey, I did not expect the identity of the killer(s) in Scream 3, nor did I expect the way Arlington Road turned out, but neither of them had me sitting there going "what a rip-off").  Kruger is a highly original screenwriter, as proven by those other two works, but what is here is so tepid that one cannot help but hate the crusade they went through to get to the finale.

Affleck's character, an ex-con that gets caught up in the sexual pen pal of a cellmate and the subsequent betrayal, is so dumb that one cannot help but root for the bad guy, in this case the subpar Gary Sinise.  There is a scene in the film in which out hero pours rum into a water pistol.  When this occurred, I though, oh, he actually thought of using the flammable alcohol as a weapon.  Instead, Affleck begins spraying the liquid into his mouth as refreshment, only to use it as a weapon an hour later in the film (ok, it may have been 15 minutes, but it sure felt like an hour).

The many turns of the girl Affleck courts, after saying he is the recently deceased cellmate/pen pal, is supposed to be some femme fatale, but she comes off as a mere caricature, nothing more.  Charlize Theron is an able actress, but I have never seen her this bad in a film with the exception of The Astronaut's Wife, another film that relied too heavily on a horrible twist finale.

Of course, the finale is not really the ending of the film.  If Frankenheimer, et al. had chosen to end the film following the finale, I might have given this film a D+, but the heinous ending (especially that cloying final shot) is enough to make a man scream.

Reindeer Games is, without a doubt, the worst film from one of the best directors from old Hollywood and one of the best writers of new Hollywood.


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Reviews by:
David Perry
2000, Cinema-Scene.com

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