> Volume 2 > Number 21

Volume 2, Number 21

This Week's Reviews:  Small Time Crooks, The Big Kahuna, Shanghai Noon, Time Code.

This Week's Omissions:  East Is East, Up at the Villa.

Small Time Crooks

(Dir: Woody Allen, Starring Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Elaine May, Hugh Grant, Tony Darrow, George Grizzard, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Elaine Stritch)



This month's Woody Allen film is Small Time Crooks, a step back to his more farcical filmmaking years.  Sure, the film is no Bananas, Love and Death, or Sleeper, but it is a nice step in his career after the multitude of deep, serio-comedies that he laid out in the eighties.

While Allen has kept a rather normal profile of kookie comedies like Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You, this is the first time in years that he has allowed the film to go this crazy.  This is rather refreshing since his last three films, Sweet and Lowdown, Celebrity, and Deconstructing Harry, have all dealt with more serious issues.  Small Time Crooks has nothing to say and is really no essay on the ways of life, it is merely entertainment.

The first half of the film is much life Allen's first film as a director Take the Money and Run (to be technical, Allen's first film was What's Up Tiger Lily?, which was really just a redub of a Japanese spy film).  The film's lead couple, Ray and Frenchie Winkler (Allen and Ullman), have seen their shares of hard times, living in a small apartment after his stint in prison.  But for Frenchie, life is fine.  Not for Ray, though, who wants desperately to go up in life, returning back to his days as a robber.  The scheme he imagines is that he and a few friends would start a business in a store two doors down from a bank.  While business is going overhead, they would build a tunnel and come out under the vault of the bank, where they could hit a massive payday.

One way or another, they succeed, and the life of riches that they find is not necessarily what Ray really wanted.  While Frenchie grows away from her husband heading off on trips to Europe and living the highlife, Ray merely wishes to spend time eating at small Chinese restaurants and going to Mets games.  As the two of them grow apart, a money-grubbing art salesman comes in, hoping to marry Frenchie and receive the monetary graces that such a marriage would bring.

The film is flawed, to say the least.  I have seen every Woody Allen film and this is one of his lesser efforts, though still ages better than muck like Shadows and Fog and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.  The story is weird to see after the beautiful Sweet and Lowdown, almost too crazy.

There are many moments in the film that work, bringing out many laughs, which accounts for the rating I have chosen to give the film.  It may not be the best Woody Allen film, but for a normal film, it is not too shabby.

The biggest debit of the film is Allen himself, who plays more of a caricature of himself than the Woody we've seen before.  The scenes where he turns and speaks in a out-of-nowhere way is too much like the way Woody Allen would be shown in something else, played by someone else.  This was not the chap from Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan, this was the Woody Allen that was made into an ant for Antz.

The rest of the cast works, with Ullman and May giving stand-out performances.  This was the first time that I had seen Elaine May in the part of an actor, the only work I knew her from was as screenwriter of The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Dick Tracy, Heaven Can Wait, and Tootsie (as well as the director of the much denounced Ishtar).  May gives great comic timing as the dim-witted cousin of Frenchie, who is given the task of helping in the business serving a front.  I would love to see Elaine May act again, though I think that it will be quite a while before she return to the performance side of films.

Allen films have a great deal of luck with performers grabbing Oscar nominations.  Unfortunately, May is the only part of the film that I think truly deserves an Oscar.


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The Big Kahuna

(Dir: John Swanbeck, Starring Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli)



Fresh off of his Academy Award winning turn in American Beauty, Kevin Spacey's follow-up could not be more low-key.  The Big Kahuna is a stage play brought to the screen, through and through.  It is well known that Spacey prefers the stage to the screen, so it is no real surprise that he has finally brought a favorite play to the screen.  But with his acting gracing The Iceman Cometh, one can only wonder why he did not bring that to the screen.

Instead Spacey chose Roger Rueff's Hospitality Suite, a low-key off-Broadway production that is barely known to most people outside of certain circles.  Perhaps he brought it to the screen so that it could gain the notoriety that his name could bring to it, perhaps it is actually one of his favorites.  Nevertheless, it does not bode well on the screen.

One of the most important parts of bringing a play to the screen is to make the product look cinematic.  Otherwise it looks staged, where the audience gets as much out of it as watching an Andy Warhol film.  A staged look makes things look too simple and uninteresting, and that is what plagues the first and last thirty minutes of The Big Kahuna.

I not really saying that The Big Kahuna is ruined by looking staged, but it does hurt its dramatic effect.  I seriously think that the story was probably great on the stage, a comment I made as I left the theatre, but that energy is not there on the screen.  A film is seen in two-dimensions, a play is seen in three.  To take the world of three-dimensions and place it on the screen of two causes the set-up to seem flatter than it should be, hence the reason that many filmmakers have learned to integrate cinema skills when staging a film (i.e. Sam Mendes with American Beauty, Elia Kazan with A Streetcar Named Desire, Sidney Lumet with Long Day's Journey Into Night).

Now that I have ranted as to why The Big Kahuna does not really find its place, I feel that I really should speak of what is good about the film.

Like most plays, the heart of the production is in the screenplay and the actors and that is where the film excels.  The screenplay by original playwright Rueff is strategic prose.  The story about three salesmen awaiting the meeting with a major corporate bigwig known as the "big kahuna" is gripping in its character studies.  I felt that each character had much to say and was hurt by an inability to get it all out.  The dialogue is fine, with moments of sheer joy and depression.

The performances from Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito help to make that screenplay run well.  Spacey is well affirmed as one of the best American actors working and this is simply further proof.  Thinking back, I cannot recall a single mediocre performance.

DeVito is not one of those actors that generally get accolades.  I have enjoyed some of his light weight work in films like The Virgin Suicides and Get Shorty, but always playing those roles has not really helped him to get much acclaim.  He is a household face, but I can't think of anyone that would consider him an Oscar calibre actor.  Here he proves this untrue.  If given the material, DeVito could very well take people's breath away.

But there is a third wheel to this cast, a horrible young actor named Peter Facinelli.  Beside Spacey and DeVito. Facinelli seems like Val Kilmer.  The Can't Hardly Wait actor did not do anything to help me forget Supernova.  There are so many fine young actors out there who do not ask too much for such a small production that I cannot believe that there was not a choice between Facinelli and Wes Bentley or Facinelli and Guy Pierce (three actors from L.A. Confidential -- I'd be in heaven).  For heaven's sake, give the part to Linus Roache, I'm really wondering whatever happened to him.

The flat acting from Facinelli and flat direction from Swanbeck cannot do the play justice.  If this play ever came to my area on a roadshow I'd see it, if only to cleanse myself of this version.


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Shanghai Noon

(Dir: Tom Dey, Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Xander Berkeley, Lucy Lui, Brandon Merrill, Rafael Báez, Walt Goggins, Adrien Dorval, Jason Connery, and Curtis Armstrong)



The last weekend of May serves as a fight between two of China's finest action artists.  John Woo is a true film artist, who can make action scenes unlike anyone else (except, perhaps, Beat Takeshi with Sonatine and Fireworks).  Woo does everything with a visual flare.  For that reason alone, Mission: Impossible 2 was a complete waste.

The flip side of the weekend is Shanghai Noon with Hong Kong's invincible man, Jackie Chan.  Say what you want about the corny stories that fill Chan's films, his martial arts are consistently good.  I'd place him below Chow Yun-Fat, but well above Jet Li and cohorts.  Why?  Perhaps because nothing seems to kill Chan.  I've seen those finale reels from Supercop and Rumble in the Bronx, Chan has more lives than a cat.

Since there is no real threat of death, his action scenes are much more fun than his dramatic Hong Kong action contemporaries.  There are many more smiles during a Chan film than a Jet Li film.  For that very reason, most Chan films work.  Simply put they are entertaining.

And that is the case with Shanghai Noon.  This is no perfect film, it's not going to stand-up beside Bite the Bullet or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it is fun all the same.  In this summer of big-budget dramatic action films, this little comedy was refreshing.  Though the action is not the best in the world, it is surely more fun than any of the other wide releases I've seen so far this summer.

Chan plays Chon Wang (Chan), an  imperial guard in the Forbidden City.  When Princess Pei Pei (Liu) is kidnapped and taken to Nevada, a group of three guards is brought together to find her and bring her back after paying the ransom.  Since Chon is not the most beloved of the guards, he is chosen to carry the luggage of the three.

Upon arrival, they take a train that is ambushed by some motley outlaws.  A trigger-happy bandit causes a bit of a stir and the leader of the outlaws, Roy O'Bannon (Wilson), is left in the desert on his own.  This happens to coincide with Chon getting broken from the three guards and must follow the plans to save the princess on his own.

The two happen to meet together and work out their differences, leaving havoc in their path.  Roy sees Chon as way to get the gold that is part of the ransom, Chon sees it as a riding companion.

This is not some huge action film, most of Chan's normally enthralling moments are low-key, but it still works on the comedy front.  I'd say that I laughed more times during this film than I have at any other film this year.  There were some moments that could have and should have been taken out, but most of the film stands fine comically.

Owen Wilson is a treat as always.  I truly think that Wilson deserves more respect than he gets.  Every time I see him or his brother Luke Wilson, I'm brought to a smile.  Maybe its the highly obtuse facial features, or maybe the intriguing way they pronounce words, but it is probably that they are truly able comedians.  I once considered Luke to be the better of the two until I saw The Minus Man, where Owen literally blew me away.  Even when working with poor material like The Haunting, Owen has shown that he does deserve a place in the sun.

Beyond Chan and Wilson, the film does fall flat.  I mean, this is a comedy and that is all it really needs to be.  Looking for some clear-cut social commentary like Mission: Impossible 2 is like trying to get dramatic energy from Galaxy Quest (a film that was perfectly released in the middle of a rush of artsy-smartsy Oscar fare).  Plus, Shanghai Noon, on its own front, is a better film than Mission: Impossible 2.  Now what if John Woo made a Jackie Chan film?


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Time Code

(Dir: Mike Figgis, Starring Jeanne Tripplehorn, Safron Burrows, Stellan Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, Leslie Mann, Xander Berkeley, Richard Edson, Holly Hunter, Golden Brooks, Steven Weber, Suzy Nakamura, Danny Huston, Julian Sands, Mía Maestro, Alessandro Nivola, Kyle MacLachlan, Viveka Davis, Elizabeth Low, and Glenne Headly)



Mike Figgis is officially one of the best filmmakers with one of the worst senses of storytelling.  So often he works with ideas so much cinematically, that he never lets the story he's trying to convey remain interesting beside the approach.

While Figgis has done a handful of other films of varying mediocrity (One Night Stand, The Browning Version, Mr. Jones), but his career is more or less notable for three experiments in filmmaking.  Leaving Las Vegas, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, and Time Code could all be placed into a time capsule with the caption "Experiments in Independent Films" and cover all that has happened in the years since Pulp Fiction.

Each time he went further into experimentation.  Leaving Las Vegas was a work on cinema verité with no sets and a high amount of improvisation -- more or less an early Dogme 95 film.  The Loss of Sexual Innocence was a fallback to films where nearly everything is conveying within silence -- more or less a modern version of Ingmar Bergman's The SilenceTime Code is a work on real time video with no cuts -- more or less a duel homage to early live television and to the opening to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, just multiplied by ten.

The first film was not too far from the guerilla filmmaking works that have been going on for years.  I think John Cassavettes could attest to having some word in on the real experimenter with this.  So Leaving Las Vegas was not that new, but at least it kept it story going and worked with it.  The entire film works, unlike the other two.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence gets lost after a half an hour and never recovers.  It is so overwrought that it loses its really vision.  Hence the reason it was critically reviled.  That some thing can pretty much be said about Time Code -- there is no way that its screenplay can compare to the idea of how the film is made.  I think that Figgis knowingly throws the story into the background.

The story is that of four tiers.  First there is the innerworkings of a film production with story pitches and screenings.  These are a bunch of people that serve as stereotypes of film producers, with the masseuse and fights of African American cinema.  There is one producer, however, that does not fall into that category.  Alex Green (Skarsgård) spends most of the film drunk.  He's late for the first quarter of the film, having sex for the second quarter, picking up coworkers in the third quarter, and drunkenly babbling in the last quarter.  I could have easily seen an entire film about Alex.

The second tier is Alex's wife Emma (Burrows).  She starts off the film talking to a therapist (Headly) and never really comes out of the sullen moments in the therapy session throughout the rest of the film.  She is unhappy with her marriage and asks Alex for a divorce, but that does not stop this runaway bride.  Burrows could have done an ad for Addidas or Nike on the set of this film she walks so much.  I'd guess she has all of fifteen major lines yet is in nearly every frame of the film (or at least a frame of the film).  This was evidently Figgis' throwback to The Loss of Sexual Innocence, hence the reason she is the least interesting.

Then there is the film's other unhappy couple.  Rose and Lauren seem like normal lovers, but that sure isn't the case in the eyes of Lauren, who places a microphone in Rose's purse to find out if she is having an affair (and of course she is... with Alex Green).  Tripplehorn spends most of the film in the top left box giving reaction shots as she listens to Rose on her earphones.  Rose is at the production company's office in hopes of getting a part in the film Bitch from Louisiana, directed by Quentin Tarantino facsimile Lester Moore (Edson).

The fourth tier is the subplots that intermix with the rest of the film.  There is the drug dealing security guard, only seeming normal after an earthquake (and there's no less than three with aftershocks), the agent (MacLachlan) who hopes to get a production deal for a motley crew of filmmakers/performance artists (Maestro and Nivola), and the woman (Mann) trying out for Bitch from Louisiana who becomes interested in bedding Emma Green.

This is the life of a production company on a Friday from 3:00 PM to 4:33 PM, or at least the one that Figgis shows.  I have not really dealt with how the film is made yet, simply due to the fact that I thought the story should come first for once.

Figgis shot Time Code with four cameras simultaneously.  No cuts, no edits, these four recordings make up the screen divided into equal fourths.  The four camera operators (Tony Cucchiari, James Wharton O'Keefe, Patrick Alexander Stewart, and Figgis) used digital cameras and followed the various castmembers around for the entire run of a professional digital tape: 93 minutes.

There was no script, just an outline as to the simple story.  Everything else is improvised.  Time Code is as much an experiment in filmmaking as it is in acting.  The work that these actors went through is incredible.  It is like acting on a stage with a population of 3.5 million and intercrossing with other actors working on different stories.  I get a headache trying to think of the dynamics that went into this film.

And speaking of headaches, that is exactly what I got from this film.  I'm not necessarily saying that it is completely the film's fault, it just that I'm not really used to following four images at the same time (to make things easier, Figgis turns down the volume on the frames that are not important for that portion of the film).  Now can you see how the story could get lost behind the attempt.

At one point in the film, the exact same pitch of a film is thrown towards the group of film producers that make up the largest part of the film's ensemble and Alex Green comments that the idea is "pretentious crap."  Figgis knows what he's doing with storytelling and let's everyone know that he is not clueless to his own misgivings.  For that very reason, Time Code cannot be considered a misstep due to this.  It is pretentious crap and proud of it.


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Reviews by:
David Perry