Volume 2, Number 9
This Week's Reviews: What Planet Are You From?, Drowning Mona, The Next Best Thing, My Dog Skip.
This Week's Omissions: The Emperor and the Assassin.
|What Planet Are You From?
(Dir: Mike Nichols, Starring Garry Shandling, Annette Bening, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley, Linda Fiorentino, Camryn Manheim, Nora Dunn, Samantha Smith, Gene Wolande, Stacey Travis, Caroline Aaron, and Edward Schofield)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Like most film critics, I have a certain adoration for Mike Nichols. Through the many rough years of film that have occurred since his breakout with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, Nichols has constantly brought a treat with some variation on some old genre. To the best of my knowledge, the only Mike Nichols film that I have disliked was Wolf, and I did not truly hate that. Unfortunately, that side note cannot be said for What Planet Are You From?
I've seen some really bad comedies over the last few years, but few adult comedies have been as bad as this. Bad comedies seem better in the hands of teen genre pictures, not witty analytic films of Mike Nichols. Yes he does much to turn around the genre in question -- those horrendous alien sex comedies, usually pushed to late night Cinemax -- but cannot get beyond the ultimate untimeliness of the genre. Where he gave life to the gay comedies with his variation on La Cage Aux Folles with The Birdcage, and an even moodiness to the melodrama Regarding Harry, there is nothing here to concisely make this seem interesting in the least. Yes, I do agree with some of the cynical ideas that he puts forth here (one person once made note that I should call my column "Cynical Cinema"), but none of it runs smoothly into a half interesting story.
When reading some early material on the film, I was caught aback at how much it reminded me of the film Earth Girls Are Easy, a film of mere note due to its early casting of Jim Carrey, and I was further saddened that the film could not even live up to its already unimpressive predecessor. What Planet Are You From? takes on modern American ideals of love, sex, and matrimony with its story of an alien sent to Earth to breed and start up a small army by doing so. The film relies on the audience still laughing at the alien's mode of sexual intercourse -- a vibrating, buzzing penis -- the fifteenth time that they bring it up (pun completely unintended). The film is more interested in keeping the audience laughing at its repetitive one-note gags that it fails to notice just how unfunny everything else is in the film.
Every scenario here is played out; every character is one-dimensional. Sure, Nichols could simply say that the latter fact is an intended look at the way people really are when it comes to sex, but that is simply a poor facade to save a weak script. No character can go far in this due to the fact that the screenplay would never allow them to go anywhere. Late in the film, a major character is produced by a hologram, an attempt to show the way this alien thinks, but in all actuality it just reminds the viewer of how thin this character was.
None of the cast really saves face here, not even some of the world's greatest actors. If Annette Bening wants to gain support for her Oscar chances, she had better hope that Academy voters pass on this film. I happen to like Garry Shandling, but here he comes off so smug and unlikable that I had to concur. Shandling's performance has about as much energy as Marlon Brando in airport line, it seems that all he has to do is smirk, look around, and hope that his career is not officially over. What happened to that great guy from Hurlyburly, one of 1998's most underrated films? I had hopes for you, Larry, why did you have to let me down?
Ben Kinglsley, Linda Fiorentino, Greg Kinnear, all of
these are highly able actors that have given great performances in other films, but none
of these (and, yes, that includes the almost always flawless Kingsley) gave me
anything to enjoy from here. Mike Nichols has made his bed, and I'm dearly hoping
that he can rebound.
(Dir: Nick Gomez, Starring Danny DeVito, Casey Affleck, Neve Campbell, William Fichtner, Bette Midler, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marcus Thomas, Will Ferrell, Peter Dobson, Raymond O'Connor, and Yul Vasquez)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Watching Drowning Mona is like watching one of those cheesy FOX television specials on what happens When Good Animals Attack: every bit of it is played out for the sheer sake of entertainment, but cannot entertain.
I was struck by the utter undeniable repression in this film. It seems like there had to be something that could have been added to make it meld well, but the producers never found it evidently. What is likable about the film is bust the reason that it will surely be disliked: it absolutely no silver lining to its utter meanness. I'm always baffled by Roger Ebert's remarks on a negative attitude ruining a film, but I usually find that to be a perk, like with Drop Dead Gorgeous (throw all political correctness out the window and enjoy). And that is why I did not really hate Drowning Mona, much of it goes in a different direction than the loving, nice films of the past. Drowning Mona does not idealize anything moral here. In fact I can only remember a single moment in which law comes into the equation, otherwise everyone is free to hate, torment, and, sooner or later, get their just desserts.
Considering the film's flimsy ad campaign, I was actually taken in by one point of the film that made an inch of a point: that it was directed by one of the fellows behind the American TV series The Sopranos. I happen to be addicted to the show thanks to my extensive adoration for the whole gangster film genre (look at my top four films of the decade, all of which are to some extent crime dramas). It is one of only five shows that I watch on a regular basis (the others being Frasier, Friends, The Practice, and The Simpsons). The minute that I received a press release mentioning Nick Gomez as being the director of "various episodes of The Sopranos" (after checking, he only directed one episode, the one where Junior Soprano and Mickey Palmice kill Brenden in the bathtub) I was interested in the film. If the guy was good enough to make the crack David Chase team, he must be pretty good. (For the record, Gomez also directed Illtown, an independent film that I had seen and was underwhelmed by before seeing this film, but my interests were more on his Sopranos work.)
The film wants to be that Agatha Christie film gone sour, but it only does the latter. The murder of one of the film's small town's denizens is so disliked, and dislikable, that there is no real reason to care that she died (and she is played by Bette Midler, all the more reason to dislike her). As the film predictably decides (no, I'm not spoiling anything here, people), there is no real reason to take matters far on her murderer, that person did everyone a favor. Yet the film spends its entirety interested in finding who is the murderer.
Not a character here could warm a slice of bread, with the possible exception of Danny DeVito's Police Chief Rash, everyone is more or less despicable. I know that Gomez and writer Peter Steinfeld want the viewer to care for Casey Affleck's Bobby character, but the fellow is so whiny and annoying that I ended up hating him, hoping that the film's killer, if not him, would ax him off next. Otherwise it is more or less myriad characters of unjust proportions brought on to tug at the audience. I especially disliked William Fichtner's Phil, husband to the recently deceased, who more or less strutted around making less-than-subtle wise cracks that left me cringing.
After seeing Drowning Mona, I was ready to see
something good, really good. Thank heavens The Sopranos comes on every
|The Next Best Thing
(Dir: John Schlesinger, Starring Rupert Everett, Madonna, Malcolm Stumpf, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Vartan, Lynn Redgrave, Josef Sommer, Neil Patrick Harris, Illeana Douglas, Linda Larkin, Suzanne Krull, Stacy Edwards, and Kimberly Davies)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The Next Best Thing is one of those films that leave you taken aback at how remote they are from entertaining. I know that I have very often adored films that failed to really entertain, are made for the sake of entertainment. I don't know of a single person that would go into The Seventh Seal, The Deer Hunter, or Jules and Jim expecting the heart-warming comedy of the year. Unfortunately for The Next Best Thing that is exactly what it wants to be.
Early in the film, we are taken through every crevice of the gay comedy genre clichés, the Ethel Merman remarks, the exercise regimes, the Judy Garland show tunes. Yes this may be grand fun for someone that is head over heals for gay comedies, but not very many people embrace the genre. Then in the second half, the film turns into Kramer Vs. Kramer. Come on people, I know that melodramatic comedies seem to be in, but its best if you can succeed in, at least, either the drama or the comedy.
I think that during the light first half, I laughed, maybe, five times. Then in the second half it was cliché hell for everyone (I actually think there is a place in some cinemateque called "cliché hell"). The Next Best Thing fails to entice or enlighten the viewer, just combing over every nook and cranny of the genre pics that have proceeded them.
Fine cast, nevertheless, but those talented names in The Swarm and The Towering Inferno can attest that good actors do not always save bad films. I happen to think that Rupert Everett is one of the best performers out there right now. In fact, like Roger Ebert has remarked, Everett was on a spotless role up until he made Inspector Gadget last year. There is much texture to his work here, he is not the requisite gay guy that he played in My Best Friend's Wedding (where he stole the show, might I add), he has now graduated to the overdemanding, drama queen mocking gay lead. I do not think that I'm coming from some homophobic repression here, but those roles he's played straight since My Best Friend's Wedding, including the terrific An Ideal Husband and the boring A Midsummer Night's Dream, have been grand acting works, without a doubt, scene-stealing works. Here I felt that he was giving grand work as an actor, but his role was too tightly drawn. One of the most important jobs of the screenwriter is to leave the characters a little open for the actors to become comfortable in the role; here it felt like Everett knew that this was what he had to do, and just lived with it.
Madonna, however much flack she gets, is actually an able actress; she was literally mesmerizing in Alan Parker's Evita. However, most of the rest of the cast falls flat, especially Benjamin Bratt, a horrid actor of mass proportions.
One thing that is rather upsetting about the failure of The Next Best Thing is that it was directed by John Schlesinger, one of my all-time favorites from the sixties and seventies (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust). I felt like he knew what he was doing, some of the shots are rather well done (as corny as it was, the camera set-up of the final shot of the film is rather pleasurable). Schlesinger joins the ranks of Norman Jewison, Mike Nichols, and John Frankenheimer in the listing of great directors that failed to please recently. With everyone else faltering, I think that it is high time that Michael Cimino stage a come-back.
The Next Best Thing does have varied moments,
and some nice set-pieces, but a bad script is a hard impediment to be freed of.
|My Dog Skip
(Dir: Jay Russell, Starring Frankie Muniz, Luke Wilson, Harry Connick Jr., Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, Bradley Coryell, Caitlin Wachs, Daylan Honeycutt, Cody Linley, Peter Crombie, Clint Howard, Lucile Doan Ewing, Jerome Jerald, Nathaniel Lee, David Pickens, and Winston Groom)
BY: DAVID PERRY
However generic, My Dog Skip is one of the better family films I've seen in a while, especially in this horrible family film driven Spring. There is little in My Dog Skip that was not predictable, but nevertheless, it is still enjoyable. Likable characters, likable story, even if old shoe, it is still refreshing.
The film is based on the memoirs of Willie Morris, the Mississippi born Harper's Bazaar writer, and the touching span of time he had with his beloved pet Skip, a dog that he received for his ninth birthday. Willie (well played by Frankie Muniz, of the new FOX sitcom Malcolm in the Middle) and Skip are inseparable. In fact, everything that Skip does seems to be for the gain of Willie, including getting him new friends and a girlfriend. Willie goes through the trials and tribulations of a World War II child, through the love of his dog. Ina weird way, it is that dog that brings some form of understanding to his ex-hero a all-star athlete neighbor that went to war and ran away (that master of enunciation Luke Wilson). Willie does not have too much to go for in life, his father is a stern veteran, his social life is near nonexistent, and his heroes are going down in flames, but Willie lives through this thanks to Skip.
There are many moments in the film that can be seen from miles away, but they still have a dramatic effect. The director here is rather well in touch with the film here, despite the fact that this is only his second film (the first being a small, little seen film from years ago). I cannot help but hope that he can continue in a nice career without going down with films like Rookie of the Year.
The actors here do rather good jobs, with Muniz shining well beyond his age. I'll take this kid over Haley Joel Osment any day. Muniz has a certain touch in his dialogue reading that gives a great deal of sincerity to every line. I could not help but like him due to the fact he was so good, even when he commits a horrible act that everyone nearly chastises him for.
Bacon and Lane do their roles fine here, there really was not that much to do. I really liked Luke Wilson here, one of the rare dramatic roles from the actor. I can't help but wonder what this film might have been like with the cast of, say, Grizzly Falls. Ok, that brought back bad memories.
My Dog Skip is one of those touchingly tender
films that strays to sappiness but never really loses its grace.