> Volume 3 > Number 25

Volume 3, Number 25

This Week's Reviews:  The Fast and the Furious, Dr. Dolittle 2, With a Friend Like Harry, The Luzhin Defence.

This Week's Omissions:  Chopper, The Gleaners and I.

The Fast and the Furious

(Dir: Rob Cohen, Starring Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Rick Yune, Mike White, Beau Holden, Ted Levine, Reggie Lee, Chad Lindberg, Vyto Ruginis, Ja Rule, Matt Schulze, Johnny Strong, and Thom Barry)



Rob Cohen's The Fast and the Furious might better be suited called The Long and the Forgettable, that is, simply put, how the film comes off on the silver screen. It is one of those adrenaline rush films that probably sounded really good on paper, but through its director's vision, the film is a misfire.

However, The Fast and the Furious cannot be easily dismissed like above: it's the type of B-movie exploitation film that would suit a drive-in theatre perfectly. The Fast and the Furious could do gangbusters as a double feature with a teen sex comedy or a cheesy sci-fi flick, and it would probably be the better of the two features.

Suffering from the same ailment of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, Rob Cohen's film tries to fill the ADD crowd with enough explosions, car crashes, and fistfights to counteract as little exposition as necessary. While this is definitely a problem facing the film, at least it seems secure with it, The Fast and the Furious does not really care that it rarely makes any sense, but that it has enough to sustain the yearnings of its target audience for a couple hours.

The film's protagonist is undercover cop Brian Spindler (Walker), who has been assigned to the underground drag racing circuit in LA to find out who among them has been hijacking cargo trucks lately. His biggest lead is Dominic Toretto, who pretty much runs these races and everyone involved in them. The only way Brian can figure to get into the crowd is through Dom's sister Mia (Brewster) by eating at her sandwich shop everyday. One of Dom's friends, Vince (Schulze), sees this as an outsider trying to take away the girl he has eyes on and immediately provokes a fight.

But some time later, Brian tries to get in again through joining in a drag race using his $80,000 tax-payer purchased car with added bottles of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems). When police break up the race and make a primary rush for Toretto, Brian saves him from jail and gets him out of the police's radar (and, unfortunately for the two of them, into the wrong turf). This makes Brian part of Dom's good side. Now he can work to find out whether or not Dom is hijacking these trucks from the inside, plus he can continue to entice Mia in the meantime.

One of the film's biggest problems is Paul Walker, who fails on nearly every level to make his character believable. I doubt that anyone seeing this film could ever believe that Dom, a supposedly on-the-ball person, would fail to see that Brian is a cop -- we could all tell before it is established about 20 minutes into the film. In the beginning of the film, he orders a tuna sandwich on white bread, no crusts -- at the same time, the thought through nearly every person's head is "white-bred, indeed."

Walker is a horrible actor -- there is no excuse that he is in the business. His clean-cut good looks cannot make up for acting that is nearly at the level of Freddie Prinze, Jr. With nearly every turn, Walker proves that there is no excuse that I thought he would have some promise after seeing him in Pleasantville -- the deluded dumb façade he pulled off in the Gary Ross film was believable only because Walker had the ability to pull of dumb. With each passing Paul Walker film -- Varsity Blues, She's All That, The Skulls -- I become more and more ashamed that I ever thought there was any promise lurking in there somewhere.

Now, Walker is not alone in the poor performance department. Jordana Brewster gives another passable, glazed-eyed performance like in The Faculty. Ted Levine, as Brian's chief officer, wears the most ghastly glasses imaginable to couple with his equally ghastly performance. Rick Yune, as a Chinese racer that wants to end Dom's reign over the other racers, just stares with a raised eyebrow and occasionally says something cold and threatening. And Matt Schulze has the poor chance of being the clichéd lovelorn drunk.

But among all the actors of disrepute, two fine actors deliver good performances, though nothing that can compare to their earlier works. I seriously like Vin Diesel, who had not really sold me with a performance until Boiler Room early last year. Diesel is not a hulking actor comparable to Marlon Brando of yesteryear, but he does show constantly impressive characterizations with his various roles. While there is very little given to him in the film to show off his talent, his presence is felt, which is a definite perk beside costar Walker whose charisma is nonexistent.

The other notable is Michelle Rodriguez, the young actress that proved that occasionally great unknown actors come out of the least expected places. Her performance in Girlfight last year is still one of the best female performances of 2000 (she, like a few other ladies -- Laura Linney, Cate Blanchett, Björk, Renée Zellweger, Gillian Anderson, and Ellen Burstyn -- deserved the Academy Award over Julia Roberts) and I had been anticipating her next film choice. Sure, this cannot compare to Girlfight and her dialogue is often horrible, but she still comes off pretty engaging. At one point she even gets to recreate some of that Girlfight abrasiveness when she punches a guy -- I could hear that Theodore Shapiro score for Girlfight running through my head for a moment.

I seem to be one of the few that will defend Rob Cohen up to a point. I think that he has the ability to create some pretty impressive shots -- especially using the great art direction in the otherwise useless The Skulls -- but he even gets lost in his own hokum half the time. When he's just making a shot of a barren street moments before it becomes crowded with millions of teenagers preparing to race, his visuals seem notable, but when he starts to turn to special effects like CGI and slow motion, the visual glory dissipates. 52-year-old Cohen reminds me of those older men who try and tap into the youths culture by wearing garish clothing and trying to speak the slang of the moment -- not only is it disarming, but also rather pathetic. When he's not trying to pander to the youths with fast edits (some blame should also got to editor Peter Honess who makes some serene films and then some incomprehensible ones), he's making some images that work.

The screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson, Eric Bergquist, and David Ayer features some of the worst dialogue this side of Akiva Goldsman. Sure there are no really bad Goldsman style puns, but the supposedly on-the-streets dialogue is often laughably bad. Some of their scenarios work in the most forgettable of ways, but of course that does not seem to be their biggest priority from the get-go. They write moments to fill the screen time that does not have cars rushing past the cameras. If this were a drama competition, The Fast and the Furious would fail miserably, but for summertime filler, at least it isn't boring.


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Dr. Dolittle 2

(Dir: Steve Carr, Starring Eddie Murphy, Kristen Wilson, Raven-Symoné, Kevin Pollak, Jeffrey Jones, Kyla Pratt, Lil' Zane, and Andy Richter, voices include Norm Macdonald, Steve Zahn, Richard C. Sarafian, Michael Rapaport, Reni Santoni, Lisa Kudrow, Anthony Anderson, Molly Shannon, Joe Bologna, Phil Proctor, and Cedric the Entertainer)



Dr. Dolittle 2 proves that even bad remakes of bad movies can spawn bad sequels. As one person that never saw the magic behind Richard Fleischer's Doctor Dolittle in 1967, I cannot really comprehend why this can create a modern franchise. Of course, considering that audiences will cause the sequel to deliver a nice profit to Fox like the 1998 original did, Dr. Dolittle 2 could be one of many Dolittle sequels to come.

Eddie Murphy returns to the Dr. John Dolittle role, a physician that can talk to animals. Since the first film, he has come to terms with his ability and has even integrated it into the practice. Not only does he help his normal human patients, but also now includes some animal patients on the side -- even moderating a self-help group for homeless dogs after work. When he walks down the hospital hallway, one secretary, a human, tells him of some appointments, another, his faithful dog Lucky (Macdonald), tells him of the other species that await his treatment. His ability has even made him famous -- when the film opens, he is a guest co-host with Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin.

However, these successes at work are not paralleled at home. While his loving wife Lisa (Wilson) and youngest daughter Maya (Pratt) still frolic to his side when he gets home, his older daughter Charisse (Symoné) feels ashamed of him. She is about to hit 16 and rebukes his new found fame -- she's a little ashamed of him. Not only that, but her new boyfriend (Zane) has the gall to call him "Pops."

After promising his daughter a trip to Europe as an ultimatum, the mafia intervenes and takes him away from his promise and into the woods. Well, actually it's not the real mafia, but a beaver whose relations to other animals is rather close to the Contra Nostra. This beaver (Sarafian) and his overzealous right-hand-man, err, raccoon (Rapaport) tell him that there is a lumber company currently knocking down their forest and pushing him and his disciples out of their home. Even though the beaver does not do anything to convince him to go his way (hey, this is a family film -- I don't think the horse's head in the bed would have dealt well with the kids), Dolittle agrees to try and stop Joseph Potter (Jones) and his men from taking down the entire forest.

Immediately, with the help of his lawyer wife, Dolittle finds the loophole he needs to keep the forest from coming down. Since there is an endangered bear in the forest, he believes that they cannot take down the woodlands, but Potter's lawyer (Pollak) fights this saying that the fact that there is only one bear means that the species cannot procreate and there is no use preserving the habitat for naught. Dolittle decides that the only way to stop them is to cart in a male bear of this species and get them to reproduce -- the only real problem is that the only available bear is part of a traveling circus. Now, Dolittle must train the male, Archie (Zahn), to be the type of wild bear that could woo the female, Ava (Kudrow).

Dr. Dolittle 2 might bode well with the youngest audience members, but it's painful for anyone older than nine. The comedy is pushed, the characters are uninteresting, and the events are boring. Screenwriter Larry Levin (who also co-wrote the original) fills the movie with cutesy potty jokes and relatively ho-hum characterizations of animals. The only thing to keep the adults alert in the film is the continual attempts to recognize the famous voices (some of whom are easy to recognize like Rapaport and Kudrow, others are tough like Joey Lauren Adams and Jamie Kennedy).

The only person who comes out of the film without losing much face is Murphy, who delivers another collection of funny moments in otherwise unfunny scenes. I have little doubt that Murphy did some improvisations here, like the dinner table scene from The Nutty Professor, since most of his funny moments are much higher than Levin's apparent talent (or lack thereof).

With this, it begins to look like Eddie Murphy might be on his way to headlining more movie franchises than any other actor. In the 1980's (back when he still had a family-unfriendly bite), Murphy did 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and their ancillaries; now, Murphy has pairs of The Nutty Professor and Dr. Dolittle, with the recently tapped Shrek 2 on the way. I don't mind that Murphy does this, as long as he starts making sequels to some of his good films. Dr. Dolittle and The Nutty Professor were far from the best films to have successors, though I would not mind revisiting Bowfinger or Coming to America. At least Shrek 2 is a good place to start.

Other than Murphy, the entire human cast pull in lackluster performances. Normally talented people like Jeffrey Jones and Kevin Pollak phone in their performances and the kids are abnormally cloying (the only reason that Lil' Zane even got the role is that he is a recognizable rapper for the young girls going into the film). Sometimes it seems like the only people putting any work into the film are Murphy and the vocal artists, who were free from having to look at the garish locations created for the animals.

Director Steve Carr is only on his second film here and that inexperience shows. Sure, he has gone up a slight bit since last year's Next Friday, but that is not saying much. Delivering shots that do not match, visuals that look horrible, and frame choices that bring back memories of Saturday matinee serials, Carr does nothing to show that he might grow to be a better director in the future. I doubt that Carr even spent anytime at film school but if he did, he should get his money back.

Complain as I may, though, Dr. Dolittle 2 will work for the smaller kids. As is often the case, in telling my opinion, it is hard to impart the fact that the film will work for others. I may not have liked it, but my 5-year-old nephew would probably love it. Is it mass-marketed to the kids? Yeah, but they don't care.


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With a Friend Like Harry

(Dir: Dominik Moll, Starring Laurent Lucas, Sergi López, Mathilde Seigner, Sophie Guillemin, Dominique Rozan, Liliane Rovère, Michael Fau, Victoire de Koster, Laurie Caminata, and Lorena Caminata)



At the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger's Guy sits on a train and is suddenly brought into an uncomfortable conversation with Robert Walker's Bruno. Guy has no earthy idea who Bruno is, but Bruno seemingly knows everything there is about Guy.

Dominik Moll's With a Friend Like Harry opens similarly and continues to mirror the art and artistry of Hitchcock (with touches of Claude Chebrol) throughout his deeply unsettling film. This time the location is a highway rest stop bathroom, but the meeting is nearly the same. Michel (Lucas) is a harried patriarch of a family consisting of four females, all of whom have something to complain about in their cramped, hot station wagon as they make way to their rustic summer home. His wife Claire (Seigner) tries to help, but his problems are too deep to end with her quieting the baby. Stopping momentarily to change a diaper and make a phone call to his parents, Michel decides to step into the bathroom and wet his face. Looking up from the sink, he sees a man standing beside him, staring, with wet hands uncomfortably erect.

That man is Harry (López) who went to college with Michel nearly 20 years earlier but whom Michel has no memory of. Harry remembers a great deal about Michel ranging from the incredulous (Harry remembers both of the pieces Michel wrote for the school paper, including a poem he can recite) to the frightening (he speaks of Michel's former girlfriends that would later become his own). The two leave each other, but not for long -- next thing Michel knows, Harry and his girlfriend Plum (Guillemin) have invited themselves to stay at Michel and Claire's home for a short while.

What begins as mere friendly acts of courtesy (Harry gives the wife and kids a ride in his heavily air conditioned Mercedes) grow into something more -- before long Michel sees that Harry's friendliness can go way too far. Behind the nice posterior that Harry exudes is a frighteningly calculated, emotionally cracked individual. His acts of kindness are more than chances to share his good fortunes; they are subtle forms of assault. Harry will do anything to help his friend.

The original title of With a Friend Like Harry is Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut de Bien, which translates to Harry, He's Here to Help. That title is far better -- I seriously wish that Miramax had not made the decision to change the US title to a semi-colloquialism. The older title really held the tone of the film -- Harry seems very nice, very cordial at first, the audience really does get the impression that he is there to help. With the new title, the threat is more apparent -- actually shown in big letters with moments of the opening. The older title, which was bandied out in its translation when the film received nominations at the European Film Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for López (who would win). When I first read that title with the nominations, I really did not have an idea where it was going to go beyond the very small summery that accompanied the notice. The only other title I'd like to see tacked onto the film would be The Trouble with Harry, sharing it with a forgotten 1955 Alfred Hitchcock black comedy.

In true Hitchcockian fashion, Moll crafts his film into a story of moral digression and sexual oppression. The innuendo he creates between various characters could be cut with a knife. Harry and Michel play off of each other like Guy and Bruno, and Harry, like Bruno, seems almost too close to his 'friend' to the point of questioning his devotion to others. There is one moment that seems awfully telling when Harry becomes insecure for the first time in the film simply because Michel makes derogatory comments about Plum.

Sergi López delivers one of the best performances of the year as Harry. He creates a man that is so likable, yet so insidious that you almost feel like you are missing something disturbingly unique about him with nearly every frame. Unless the über-campaigners over at Miramax put out a huge campaign (and they should), López will be forgotten come Oscar time, much to my chagrin. It'll be the biggest mistake they've made since they snubbed Matt Damon's similar performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The others merely bask in his presence. This is not to say that any of them do poorly, in fact they play their characters perfectly. They, like the audience, can only sit and wonder what in the world is going on with Harry.

The person that shows the most with his muted performance is Laurent Lucas, who is perfectly exasperated for the character. He has no idea how to react to Harry's actions because he has already been stretched to a breaking point. The weight of fighting Harry on top of his parents, brother, and wife would be too much for him to handle. The meticulous screenplay by Moll and Gilles Marchand (who also co-wrote Human Resources with its director) gives Lucas some great moments of restraint to counter López.

Unlike the Hollywood thrillers of today (it is almost poetic that With a Friend Like Harry, a French thriller, opened wide the same week that Hollywood went into self-aggrandizing mode with the 100 Years, 100 Thrills special regulated to only American thrillers), With a Friend Like Harry does not go for any easy ways out. This is the type of film that Adrian Lyne wanted to make with Fatal Attraction before Paramount forced him to re-shoot the ending. With a Friend Like Harry never goes over the top and never pushes any envelope -- it is the closest modern film has come to Hitchcock's Psycho, creating abnormally terse tension for nearly an hour before enacting anything truly terrifying.

The last film to create this much unrest to such personal delight was Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999. That film is a superior creation, but a perfect partner to go with Moll's film. Where Ripley was the To Catch a Thief with touches of Psycho and Frenzy, Harry is Strangers on a Train, Psycho, and Shadow of a Doubt all mixed into one. Like Minghella's film, Moll's infuses his film with certain European qualities, the same ones that Hitchcock began to lose as he became more and more a Hollywood director (if Hollywood could make a thriller as good as Hitchcock in his heyday, I'd be speechless) -- I love the soft, subtle sensibilities of Moll's direction in the same way I love Minghella's grandiose, lavish style. Ripley succeeded as a thrilling costume drama, Harry succeeds as a thrilling thriller. And in this unexciting age of The Skulls, The Way of the Gun, and 15 Minutes, that's quite a compliment.


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The Luzhin Defence

(Dir: Marleen Gorris, Starring John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, Fabio Sartor, Christopher Thompson, Alexander Hunting, Peter Blythe, Orla Brady, Mark Tandy, and Kelly Hunter)



Vladimir Nabokov's 1929 novel The Defence comes to the screen through the lens of neo-feminist filmmaker Marleen Gorris. Match made in heaven? No, not for a moment -- Nabokov's indifference to female characters, especially in The Defence does not meld well with Gorris' style, which actually beefs up female characters so that they are more than pawns in Nabokov's protagonist's story.

The story Nabovok set forth was one of devotion and deliria -- it's not his best work, but a respectable one nonetheless. What Gorris does, however, loses all that made Nabokov's novel noteworthy -- his literary touches are lost on Gorris' heavy-handed direction and scripting (adapted screenplay by Peter Berry, rumored to be the writer behind The Talented Mr. Ripley follow-up Ripley's Game). Nabokov did not write a romantic novel with a strong female to take care of her feeble male -- he wrote a documentation of one man getting lost in himself and the people, including a lover, that compose his life.

The story follows Russian chess master Alexandre Luzhin (the novel keeps his name a secret until the end, but the movie is open with it) and his rather idiot-savant personality, both in game and in life. Luzhin (Turturro) comes to the World Chess Championships in Italy with a good amount of fanfare that he really does not understand. The people behind the championship believe that their group of 40 competitors will almost assuredly end with Luzhin and Italian fan favorite Turati (Sartor) -- a match that they think will be one incredible event.

Luzhin is much like Bobby Fischer in the way he allows his life to become engulfed in the game. At one point in the film, he sits in a cab thinking about one play, not noticing that the driver has left him alone in the countryside. He could probably win this tournament easily -- who can really defeat a man that strips his mind of everything except the game -- but he has a problem: he cannot deal with the stress that comes with the presence of his old mentor, the rather wicked looking Valentinov (Wilson).

As a youth, Luzhin (Hunting, giving one of the worst young performances in years) is caught in the middle of his father's affair with his aunt. Brought up in a rather upper-class living, Luzhin is unable to get out of the snow-covered structure, his domicile, that makes him present to his the infidelity and the fights and, finally, the tragedy. In the wake of all this, he was given over to Valentinov in hopes that the elder man could get young Luzhin into tournaments that will allow Luzhin to succeed as a chess player; instead Valentinov only exploits him for gambling deals and parlor games -- "can a man on the street defeat my chess phenom" -- and then leaves him behind to continue to ruin someone else's life. After that, Luzhin creates another prison, this one mental instead of physical.

At the championship, he meets another Russian, Natalia (Watson), who takes his breath away. He is not so much enthralled with her in love, but in a weird commonality. He feels drawn to her, perhaps because she was on the same train with him, perhaps because she too is from Russia, or perhaps simply because she was there. Before even knowing her name, Luzhin asks her to marry him and she decides to think about, much to the chagrin of her mother (James) who has been setting the stage to suit her daughter up with an Italian count (Thompson).

Where Nabokov created a world that seemed almost like a fable, Gorris strives to do something closer to reality. The Luzhin Defence has an air to it like she was terribly tempted to tack on a fictional "Based on a true story" title like the Coen Brothers did with Fargo. This difference between the two media is annoying -- the film might actually work for those unacquainted with Nabokov's original purpose -- and it becomes more and more cloying as the film goes into a final, listlessly conventional ending. The climax that is created for this film is merely a chance for Gorris to make one last, loud feminist call -- she has dulled down The Luzhin Defence into a woman-behind-the-man story. Give this lady the Jackie O. or Eleanor Roosevelt story soon, but keep her away from classic literature.

Gorris is not actually a bad director, just one that has become less admirable as years have progressed. Her early years as a raged women's liberationist filmmaker are incredibly emotional in their intents and stand as far better films than most other genre films at that time. I actually hold 1982's A Question of Silence and 1984's Broken Mirrors up with the later feminist works of Jane Campion. Her 1995 masterpiece Antonia's Line toned down some of her aggression and became an incredible piece of vanguard cinema and, surprisingly, a Best Foreign Langauge Film Academy Award winner. But, for some reason, with 1997's Mrs. Dalloway and The Luzhin Defence, she almost becomes a feeble lenser of Merchant-Ivory wannabe costume dramas with stronger female roles than their literary counterparts. Mrs. Dalloway still worked, perhaps because Virginia Woolf's novel had a very secure group of female character; but The Luzhin Defence hurts from her add-ons because the story is so desperately dependent on Nabokov's mere lead (Nabokov didn't even give Natalia a name in his novel).

As is usually the case with these costume dramas, the costumes and sets are terrific, but the matters in the foreground seem so stuffy. Gorris uses a great deal of long shots to create, I suppose, a feeling of misplacement for her characters, but it instead only enhances the view of the more filling backgrounds. While the actions, at least those that Nabokov wrote, still remain appealing, their final follow-through in direction and storytelling feel stifled, almost like a Nabokov for the least needing reader/viewer.

The two leads do their best, but something feels amiss with Turturro's performance, which becomes rather cloying as the film progresses. I think he is a very talented actor, who can show a wide range in his various roles (I still think that he gave the best performance in Quiz Show, not Ralph Fiennes or Paul Schofield) but this one comes too close to type -- many roles have delivered similar performances and done it better, including Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Peter Sellers in Being There, and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Nabokov's frame story still remains intriguing up to a point. When Gorris adds her new ending, things really fall apart, though her poor use of Nabokov's flashbacks began the breaks in the foundation early on. This film, fresh off of Merchant-Ivory failure with Henry James' The Golden Bowl, gives some credence to regular people's distaste of costume dramas. Lacking the emotional investment that Nabokov created for his protagonist, Gorris creates a movie version of The Defence that is never in the least awe-inspiring with the exception of the background work. And for those who don't even care about the sets and costumes, The Luzhin Defence is a complete waste.


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Reviews by:
David Perry