Volume 3, Number 31
This Week's Reviews: Rush Hour 2, Original Sin, Made, Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
This Week's Omissions: Bride of the Wind, Fast Food, Fast Women, The Princess and the Warrior, The Princess Diaries.
|Rush Hour 2
(Dir; Brett Ratner, Starring Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Roselyn Sanchez, Zhang Ziyi, Alan King, John Lone, Harris Yulin, Don Cheadle, Chris Penn, Tanya Newbould, and Stephen Sable)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Zhang Ziyi is one of the finest actresses to make a mark in American cinema lately. Though everything she has made before the new release Rush Hour 2 has been Asian, her face has graced enough media -- whether it be magazine covers, movie ads for The Road Home and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the Golden Globes ceremony -- that people can recognize her -- one of the few Eastern performers to make a mark in Western cinema, at least since Chow Yun-Fat jumped the Pacific.
When I think back on Rush Hour 2, I automatically think of the youth, beauty, and acting prowess that Ziyi possesses. And yet I cannot let myself write a huge percentage of this review to her -- one of the many problems in Brett Ratner's film is that Ziyi is poorly employed, her time in the film is so sparse that it often hurts from her absence.
The real stars of Rush Hour 2, though, are Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, who reprise their roles of Detectives Carter and Lee, respectively. They make for an odd pair -- and the over-exemplified culture clashes make for the same ratio of action to comedy in this second outing. Ah, but the rub, as was the case with the first film, is that Tucker is not funny. While Chan can do some of the most ingenious stunts, Tucker can ruin the momentum with another tired attempt at laughs. If this film were to have gone with Chan much more than Tucker, much to the chagrin of some of his fans, the glaring problems that are found in Rush Hour 2 might have been excusable. But as the film is now -- 65% comedy, 35% action -- it is hard to look beyond the blemishes. Rush Hour 2 is the perfect double feature with Kiss of the Dragon: both feature some stunning stunts, but neither can come up with a workable way to fill in the blanks between the action.
In this film, Carter is visiting his now close friend Lee in Hong Kong, hoping that the Chinese detective inspector can show him a good time when not on duty. What he does not understand, though, is that Lee is almost always on duty. In seemingly genial trips to a karaoke bar and a massage parlor, Carter soon learns that Lee is actually taking him there to search for various Hong Kong criminals.
The main villain is Ricky Tan (Lone), who runs the Fu Cang Long triad gang. He and Lee have bad blood between them -- as a police officer, Tan was the partner of Lee's father and would ultimately have a hand in his death. Lee yearns to get back at Tan for this, but he cannot since the gangster is constantly joined by a rogue group of thugs at his side. His main thug, a perfect right-hand-woman, is Hu Li (Ziyi), who takes care of his business and becomes the wall in Carter and Lee's way to infiltrate Tan.
Soon into the second act, a third villain is introduces with American billionaire Steven Reign (King), who is currently hard at work on his latest piece of extravagance: a Las Vegas casino. He is joined by undercover customs agent Isabella Molina (Sanchez), who dallies with the interests of the two heroes in hopes of either getting them off her case or to gain the trust of Reign and Li.
In the film, these six characters collide and the audience waits in anticipation for something great to happen. There are some really fine people in various parts of the film, whether it be the action savvy Chan, the drama specialist Ziyi (though, word around town is that she isn't half bad in action either), or the comedy talent King. But nothing ever really comes about from these three greats since the rough edges in Ratner's direction and Jeff Nathanson's screenplay fail to give anything to he trio of nice casting touches. Chan's fights are edited down to small scuffles, Ziyi is given barely anything to do besides look sinister and kick a couple times, and King is forced to play it straight. How do you hire these three actors and not let them do their magic.
This is not to say that Chan never impresses in the film -- in fact there are a couple stunts that fall under the "how'd he do that" heading. One stunt, involving a teller window has to be one of the finest works in his career and, thankfully, is not overedited by Ratner and Mark Helfrich like most of the other stunts. This is no Rumble in the Bronx, where Chan did some of his finest work, but at least amidst the muddled mess of Ratner and Helfrich's work, Chan still comes out with some stuff to look in awe at.
As for the comedy, well that is another story. Rarely is there anything to laugh at through the whole film. I remember laughing once at an inspired Lionel Ritchie joke, but soon afterward, the diatribe that housed the joke had become stale through the horrendous delivery that Chris Tucker tried to use. His talent -- or lack thereof -- primarily consists of him speaking so fast and furious that people might not notice how hopelessly unfunny he actually is. The only time he is laugh out loud hilarious besides the Ritchie gag is when he's more spontaneous in the film's closing outtakes reel. But the three or four times that Tucker made me laugh is not enough to make me hope that he finds another film role soon.
I believe that there are a couple camps that will compose
the audiences for Rush Hour 2: the old school Jackie Chan fans and the Rush Hour
fans. The former group will be thrilled by the Chan work, but angered by the cutting and
in-between distractions. For the latter group, this film will be a joy -- it has no
aspirations beyond rehashing most of the same ground. It's like pointing them at the
original and saying, "wasn't that fun, so isn't this fun!" But the ending
problem is that Rush Hour 2, like the original in my opinion, is not fun. It is a
long and boring genre mix that fails on many levels. New Line should be ashamed -- it is
almost ironic that they allowed a certain line of dialogue to remain in the film:
"Imagine a business where people give you money and you give them back absolutely
nothing." As Robert Downey, Jr., said in Wonder Boys, "sound like anyone
(Dir: Michael Cristofer, Starring Antonio Banderas, Angelina Jolie, Thomas Jane, Allison Mackie, Joan Pringle, Pedro Armendáriz, James Haven, Jack Thompson, Cordelia Richards, and Gregory Itzin)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The immaculate storytelling found in François Truffaut's film Mississippi Mermaid and Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz into Darkness is lost on Michael Cristofer's limp envisioning of one man's attempt to keep the affection of one tempestuous woman. This story, of course, worked under the eye of Truffaut and Woolrich, but the revising involved in Cristofer's screenplay and direction only cause the story to seem ho-hum. Where Truffaut, arguably the best French director since Renoir, made Woolrich's story into an intriguing period piece, Cristofer seems content to unclothe his actors and give them menial things to do.
With lavish sets, a beautiful locale, and definitely sexy stars, there is no lack of nice images in Original Sin, but the real problem is that there is nothing else to really speak of in the entire experience. In the revising, it becomes rather clear that Cristofer's interest in making this film is more in showing some Jolie skin, something that he showed with much more success in the HBO movie Gia a few years ago. Here it feels like Cristofer is more interested in ensuring regular play on Cinemax late night in a couple months than to make a theatrical feature that might actually leave people pleased by masterful storytelling instead of soft-core pornography. Cristofer's film is more akin to Emmanuel than Mississippi Mermaid.
Shot in Mexico, Original Sin follows the problems that occur to rich Cuban plantation owner Luis Antonio Vargas when he orders a bride. The picture of his "package" is nothing like the image of the actual woman that walks off of the boat upon arrival. She is Julia Russell (Jolie), an American that oozes with sexuality through her pouty lips and visible cleavage -- almost automatically Luis should have known that she was not the nice, virtuous girl he ordered.
As the audience can tell early on -- proving the inability of Cristofer and Jolie to holdup beside Mississippi Mermaid's François Truffaut and Catherine Deneuve -- Julia will not stay with Luis and she will leave him tortured by a love that was not returned. And, of course, before long our doubts of Julia come to fruition and she leaves him with a huge chunk of his money in toe. There to edge him on is a seemingly omnipresent private investigator named Walter Downs (Jane). At first it seems like Downs could be a possible lover for Julia before he finally relates his attraction towards Luis -- by the end of the second act, his true affection is again back in limbo.
Things might not have been so bad had it not been for the fact that a complete hack was behind both the keyboard and the camera. In just three films, Michael Cristofer has shown good reason that he should not be allowed around a motion picture set. While Angelina Jolie was able to carry Gia in 1998 with an incredible performance, his next film, Body Shots, left nothing to show in terms of directorial prowess. Though the story is not near as bad as in Body Shots, the visual work on Original Sin is a low point. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto did a far better job when working with handheld cameras in Amores Perros -- here he is lost in a collection of filters and awful pastels that make the movie look like a Gap catalog exploded in the film printing room. And editor Eric A. Sears does little to help matters.
One of the biggest problems with Original Sin, though, is that the previous synopsis serves merely the 40 minutes of the film, but repetition of settings, story arcs, and clichés lead the film into a void that never really continues the story until the final 20 minutes (quite taxing when you consider that the film is 110 minutes in length, leaving 50 minutes of filler and fluff). Michael Cristofer has no earthly idea how to make his film seem more streamlined and run like a well-tuned machine -- instead it chugs along at a slow pace and never really appears to have a point besides the occasional glimpse of a bare breast or buttock.
And let's not get into the prude issue here, I don't mind a
film running the soft-core porn course that the film veers near, but I do mind it when the
simulated sex and nudity has absolutely no purpose other than to take the audience's minds
away from the fact that the film has nothing going for it besides two attractive and
immodest leads. Had the names Banderas and Jolie not been tagged onto the titles, there is
little doubt that the film would have made it into a video store sooner than you can say
(Dir: Jon Favreau, Starring Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Sean Combs, Vincent Pastore, Peter Falk, Famke Janssen, Faizon Love, David O'Hare, and Makenzie Vega)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Just about everyone liked Swingers back in 1996 -- it was the hip little indie film to hold people's attentions in the wake of their all-hail Tarantino period. Sure, there are some people that treat it like it is the absolute comedic cinema of the cool, but others, like me, just liked the film, even noted that it was a little overrated when most people finally got to it and heralded it. However, as is always the case with these good little films that gain a following -- we are definitely happy that it was Swingers that received a cult status instead of dreck like Joe's Apartment.
Looking back on Swingers now, having seen the semi-sequel Made, I can only look back with a smile on my face. That 1996 film by Doug Liman with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn starring was so fresh and likable by comparison. This new film, where Favreau takes four hats, starring, directing, producing, and writing, is cumbersome and forgettable. By the time that the film sheds its delusions of importance, the audience is already getting back in their cars. Some critics have half-heartedly (and, in my opinion, unreasonably) referred to the film as a work in the vein of Cassavetes. Sure, maybe when Cassavetes made the one mediocre film in his oeuvre, the alarmingly inconsistent Husbands in 1970, but not the John Cassavetes that made Faces, Gloria, and A Woman Under the Influence.
Made is not the film that it yearns to be -- it never really comes off the ground even though there are some occasional highlights, the diamonds in the rough, so to speak. But getting to those moments can be tiresome -- in 95 minutes, Favreau fails to hit the intended mark some 75% of the time. Otherwise, he is letting others carry the film or actually doing something of note in his own fields.
Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn play Bobby and Ricky, respectively, two L.A. smalltime hoods that hope to make some dough to tide them over for the moment. Ricky hasn't any real obligations, so he mainly goes through life playing things as only a smug leech would. All his life Ricky has been able to get the needed boost from Bobby, even their old high school football coach tells him that to his face. Bobby, on the other hand, has something to work for: he is raising his girlfriend's child (Vega). In one of his little side-jobs (which include boxing and cement laying), he drives said girlfriend, Jessica (Janssen), to various bars where she strips for a living. She works for local boss (i.e. two-bit godfather) Max (Falk), and therefore Bobby does too.
When things are looking pretty rough for Bobby, he gets a great chance to make everything right: Max needs someone to fly to New York and take care of a package through some chap named Ruiz (Combs). Bobby is game for this, but he only asks one thing from Max, that he allow Ricky to go along too. So the two boys get on a plane and head to Manhattan, where they sit and wait to learn of their job (the responsibility is so hush-hush that they don't even know what's in the package they must pick up, or for that matter, when, where, or from whom). They are assigned a tough limo chauffeur (Pastore) and get in touch with Ruiz -- they begin work on the deal and hope that Ricky's mouth and complete disposition does not get them fired or killed.
One of the reasons that Swingers worked was that the characters, despite their many problems, were likable. No matter what was coming from Vaughn's Trent or Favreau's Mike, there was still an overriding interest in their travails. That is definitely not the case with Made. By the end of the film, I was far more interested in the future for Pastore's underdeveloped chauffeur than in either of the two major characters. The film attempts to create emotional interests in the plots between Bobby, Jessica, and the kid, but the future in the triangle is so predictable that no concern is really justified -- we all know where this plot is going.
Having never directed a film before, Favreau made the smart decision to grab a talented cinematographer in Christopher Doyle. The DP, best known for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, does some fine work here, capturing some of the more fleshed out aspects of New York after dark. I consider his work on the film to be the movie's strongest attribute -- where Favreau falters here and there as a director, Doyle is nearby to clean up the mess a little.
But the real mistakes come to light in Favreau's screenplay, which rambles on like an unfunny stand-up comedian that will not leave the stage. There are a couple of funny moments (one involving everyone's favorite Saved by the Bell actor) and some cameos from Sopranos actors that are noticeable (besides Pastore, Drea de Matteo and Federico Castelluccio also make appearances), but in the end all that's really left to consider is Favreau. I do not consider Vince Vaughn to be much of a talent, but I would have at least thought he'd have the knowledge to refrain from some of the more glairing mistakes in Favreau's writing for Ricky. I'm not just saying that choosing to play the character as a jerk was a bad choice as an actor, but that it is incredibly unnerving in the way that he does it.
Made opens with the two lead performers in a boxing
match where they are trying their best to beat the pulp out of each other. As the people
sitting ringside become bored, they get more and more restless before finally heckling the
two friends in fisticuffs. Too bad that film is such an artificial medium -- I know that
I'd love to get to heckle Favreau and Vaughn for this little mess.
(Dir: Terry Zwigoff, Starring Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, Scarlet Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Stacey Travis, Charles C. Stevenson, Jr., Dave Sheridan, Tom McGowan, Debra Azar, Brian George, Pat Healy, Teri Garr, Ashley Peldon, and Ezra Buzzington)
BY: DAVID PERRY
With Ghost World, filmgoers are introduced to Enid, the crass, cynical, and sardonic heroine to finally stand as the female counterpart to Holden Caulfield. No one really understands her, and she is fine with that -- those people are just phonies that will go on living a conventional, and probably melancholy, life. It is nothing new to have a lead character in a film that goes against the status quo, but rarely has one seemed so accurate in their interpretation of the world around them.
Director Terry Zwigoff has done the fine job of bringing Enid to life on the screen -- before now, the character had never been beyond the print in a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (though, it is hard to believe that the lesser creation of Daria from the cable series of the same name came from the same Clowes-chiseled mold). Zwigoff likes to document unusual people, perhaps because he too is one. This is not a bad thing -- standing tall against conventions may lead to ridicule, but it also means the person has a stronger belief in their own self. Characters like these remind me of the line in Almost Famous, where Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs tells his young, talented, yet unpopular fan that he'll see all the people he knows as he passes them "on their long journey to the middle."
Zwigoff's last film was the dysfunctionally masterful Crumb in 1994, where he documented the life of the equally dysfunctional Robert Crumb. All of these characters -- real or fictional -- seem like beacons of truth in a highly conformist society. When these people do something that isn't necessarily popular, it is not that they are hideously out-of-touch, but that they are willing to show their divergence in all its glory. They are the same people that act a certain way and hope that no one will try and be like them -- an action that completely goes against their intentions.
For the film version of Daniel Clowes's novel, Enid is played with a wicked wit by the once forgotten but back again Thora Birch. Birch's last high profile work (let's just act like she did not make Dungeons and Dragons) was as Lester Bernham's crass, cynical, and sardonic daughter in American Beauty. In that film, she gets to say "we'll always be freaks and we'll never be like other people." Enid would be proud.
When the film opens, Enid and best friend -- dare I say, only close friend -- Rebecca (Johansson) are graduating from their lackluster existence at their suburban California high school. Well, in actuality, Enid is not graduating just yet -- she must return for a summer school course in art since her final grade was a failing one. So, while Enid embarks on a rather remedial tour through art with a abnormally mellow instructor (the terrific Douglas), Rebecca continues with her life -- a journey to Lester Bang's metaphorical middle. Enid's whole life is dedicated to doing things that are not seen as normal actions, Rebecca, on the other hand, is quite happy to make changes that might help her to fit in. Not only does she continue looking at bland little apartments for her and Enid to move into, but she is also gaining the attention of boys who find her attractive beside the often frightening (usually on purpose) Enid. But the last draw is when Rebecca gets a job at, oh dear, the local Starbucks rip-off.
While the two school chums are growing apart, though, Enid is beginning a new relationship with another outsider. He is Seymour (Buscemi), a self-professed loser who collects country and blues 78-rpm records and takes out "you were seen" ads in the newspaper personals. When Enid and Rebecca choose to return his ad and then leave him waiting at the diner for his date -- an action that especially depresses them -- they decide to follow him home and make some form of amends. Rebecca is content to continue her sunny-side-up future, but Enid wants to gain some form of personal forgiveness -- she turns out befriending the man nearly twice her age.
Watching Enid and Seymour on the screen has to be one of the finest couplings in cinema this year. These two destitutes -- one happily, one unhappily -- live their lives completely independent of others though some sort of attribution would happily be accepted. They are perfect together -- the bond seems as strong as the one between the title characters in Harold and Maude, and their dispositions are more interesting. When people interact with these two souls it is remarkable -- especially when Enid's malleable father (Balaban) attempts to talk to his composed daughter.
As Seymour, Steve Buscemi delivers his finest performance thus far in his great career. The actor, best known to audiences as a wiseacre in films like Reservoir Dogs and Armageddon, rarely gets to show his dramatic range. The last time that I remember seeing a character from Buscemi created to empathize with was Tommy in Trees Lounge, a role that he had to literally write for himself. It is refreshing to see that someone else had the belief in Buscemi as an actor in giving him the role of Seymour -- it is perhaps his defining moment as an actor.
It's interesting thinking about Ghost World because it raises so many little questions about life that just one sitting is not enough. The ambiguities and open-ends do not make for easy consumption and audiences unaware or repellant of Zwigoff's style will probably not appreciate his work. But it is one of the most incredible achievements this year -- by the ending, I seriously felt in-touch with the characters he had brought in front of me, even if some of them are not pure humanity on the screen. That is refreshing: few films deliver a story and characters near as engaging as the ones found in Ghost World. For my money, in the genre of smart teen-drawn, adult-oriented comedies, Ghost World is up there with Election and Rushmore.
Terry Zwigoff has created one of the true masterpieces of
2001 -- the best English language production so far this year. With a directorial style
that fits perfectly with his protagonists, Zwigoff proves that he has just as much insight
into fiction as he did with his two non-fiction documentaries. As much as I love Crumb, Ghost
World is his better film -- it is more fully realized and creates a perfect mood and
tone that feels cinematic yet realistic. Zwigoff even happily admits to collecting those
78-rpm records himself, showing an interesting connection between he and Seymour. Both are
people in touch with their intentions, only that Zwigoff does not need a young muse to
show him the path out of conventional ways.
|Hedwig and the Angry Inch
(Dir: John Cameron Mitchell, Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask, Theodore Liscinski, Rob Campbell, Michael Aranov, Andrea Martin, Ben Mayer-Goodman, Alberta Watson, and Maurice Dean Wint)
BY: DAVID PERRY
If Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show and Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret somehow had a lovechild, that child as an adult would be Hedwig, the flamboyant rock singer found in John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The film, based upon a successful off-Broadway play a couple years ago, has all the intentions that made Tommy into the immortal rock opera that it now is. The main difference, though, is that Tommy's problem was a born blindness, Hedwig's is the remnants of a botched sex-change operation.
You see, Hedwig was Hansel, a happy little East German boy whose history turned him into a transvestite in the U.S. of A. The metaphor found in his main anthem is that he is as strong willed and unbreakable as the Berlin Wall -- in fact, not only does Hedwig sing it in the opening titles, but Emily Hubley's ingenious animation also sets this comparison forth. As a child, Hansel was a little boy that loved music, so much that his mother made him listen to the radio in the oven so that it would not drive her crazy. One day, as a teenager, a U.S. soldier happened upon a sunbathing Hansel and was absolutely shocked to learn that this person was a boy; he thought Hansel was one attractive girl. He made an offer: if Hansel will have a sex change operation and marry him, the soldier will take Hansel out of Germany and into the U.S. Things, of course, are not forever blissful for Hansel, who as a woman took his mother's name Hedwig -- the army officer leaves him for another young man.
Now, Hedwig is living the life of a diva, singing in two-bit clubs around the country with his band of fellow Eastern Europeans. But Hedwig has a purpose to her singing tour: she has a broken heart and a broken trust to mend. After taking in a young, deeply religious singer and teaching him the ropes, she fell in love. However, this boy, given the name Tommy Gnosis (Pitt) by Hedwig, was so appalled to learn that this lover was a former man that he ran away from her and became a huge pop hit with the songs they wrote together. Johnny Gnosis is the flavor of the moment and Hedwig is mad -- but there is still a love there, she even chooses her tour locations to appear in bars next-door to Tommy's tour performances.
Arguably one of the hardest releases to market in Middle America, Hedwig and the Angry Inch comes alive off the screen in ways few could imagine. Though not a sure bet, it would not be hard to believe that in fifteen to twenty years people will flock to repertory productions of Hedwig in the same way they do Rock Horror Picture Show these days. It is a splendid production filled with energy that some of the more arty features this year -- many of which I've rallied around in recent months -- lack.
Surely one performance that will be forgotten by the end of the year, John Cameron Mitchell delivers an incredible performance in the lead. This is one movie nearly completely dependent on its lead performer and Mitchell definitely fulfills the needs of his role. The fact that he also wrote and directed the film makes him even more deserving of credit.
There is a great deal of fun found in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and it is easy to see why this worked so well as a stage play. With an incredible song score and an intriguing design, Mitchell has created one of the most unusual yet likable films. Unlike the vanguard of some masters, Mitchell seems content to create a movie so gaudy, so fantastical in its vanguard style that the audience is allowed to get in the joke. This is flamboyant vanguard, an art form that is rarely shown to wide audiences.
Thanks to a successful run at this past year's Sundance
Film Festival, Hedwig is allowed to get a larger release than merely the NY/LA run that it
would have otherwise been constrained to. It's not a landmark film, but it is so joyous in
its chance to tell this story through film that it is hard to dislike it. The
performances, music, and look all work well together and create a garish appeal unlike
anything since David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust phase. And, hey, that's exactly what Hedwig
would want for her story.