Volume 4, Number 10
This Week's Reviews: The Time Machine, Storytelling, Dragonfly.
This Week's Omissions: All About the Benjamins, Dark Blue World, The Fluffer.
Capsule Reviews: Hart's War, Return to Never Land.
of the Apes
|The Time Machine
BY: DAVID PERRY
"You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted."
Those are the first words out of the mouth of non-nominal The Time Traveler in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The novella, which is considered among the finest science fiction stories ever created (the best, you may ask, is an H.G. Wells story, but instead named The Invisible Man), came to theatres in 1960 with a version by George Pal, fresh off of adapting Wells' The War of the Worlds. Now, with special effects up to the task of recreating much of what Wells wrote about, his great-grandson Simon Wells has chimed in with his own version of the story.
But it becomes apparent watching Simon Wells' new film that he has quite possibly never taken the time to read The Time Machine, or at least much of the subtext was lost on him while he was too busy making his animated films Balto, An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, or The Prince of Egypt. This new film mutes much of what H.G. Wells accomplished in 1895 by turning the story into little more than a glance at some miraculous special effects, neutering the story of all its sociological points.
The George Pal version was not a masterpiece by any means, but it did understand much of the needed pathos for the story. When we watch that film's Time Traveler (portrayed effectively by Rod Taylor) sit and stare at the mannequin in the clothing shop window, understanding that for the long trip ahead, she is the only friend he has, the audience is brought into the anxiety that Pal and screenwriter David Duncan have created for the admittedly stoic character found in Wells' story. However, Simon Wells hasn't any interest in this -- his real addition to the story is a love-and-loss miscalculation that tries desperately to convince the audience that the Time Traveler's reasoning behind going to the future is just from a failed attempt to change the past. In this way, films like Back to the Future, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Peggy Sue Got Married seem like much more intellectually stimulating cinema.
The Time Traveler now has a name, Alexander Hartdegen (Pearce), and a purpose. One night in Central Park, he proposed to his girlfriend Emma (Guillory) before a mugger came out and shot her for the engagement ring. Over the course of the next four years, Alexander has worked to understand time travel and finally succeeds when he creates a huge aluminum time machine built around a parlor chair. But when he finds that even when changing the past Emma still dies at the same time, Alexander decides to journey into the future to, perhaps, understand why he cannot save her.
Sitting in his parlor chair he watches New York go through modern society to a dystopia, through an ice age to a land of fertility. When he stops in 802,701, Alexander finds that the world has evolved into two races, the passive Eloi and the hunter Morlocks. The former are a dark-skinned civilization who live on the sides of cliffs in huge huts that would make the Lost Boys proud; the latter are huge, muscular beasts who live underground and eat the Eloi.
Alexander finds that English has been passed on to the youths of the Eloi and soon befriends the local teacher, Mara (Mumba), in charge of teaching the kids English. Since she seems to be the only one he can have a conversation with other than the children, the relationship hints on further aspirations, but before he can go any further, she is taken captive by the Morlocks. More fuzziness ensues, culminating on a slew of scenarios H.G. Wells would scoff at.
Jeremy Irons gets a chance to ham it up in the last act as the so-called über-Morlock, an albino genius who can get into the minds of both his own species and the Eloi. Irons portrays enough satisfaction with the idiocy of his role that he comes out of the movie unscathed, though the fact that this is his second consecutive over-the-top villain in a horrible film (following Dungeons & Dragons) does make it seem like the actor needs to fire his agent (as was said when Cuba Gooding, Jr., appeared in Snow Dogs: this is the type of role given to Oscar winners?).
However, the sullenness portrayed by Guy Pearce only makes his character, the protagonist, an uninteresting whiney dolt. Much of the early scenes try to comically portray him as a mathematical savant, similar to John Nash, but the rest of the film has him in Ian Holm mode from The Sweet Hereafter and, while jumping across huge blue screens showing grumbling monsters, that type of acting ultimately fails.
This film might as well have been called I Spit on H.G.
Wells' Grave -- for over ninety-minutes, Simon Wells has taken away the awe-inspiring
story and the pitch-perfect social commentary (the original served as a veiled indictment
of everything from science to socialism) from The Time Machine and turned it into
a showcase for the technicians over at Industrial Light & Magic. In the end, few plot
points remain from the story, making Simon Wells' The Time Machine as much an
adaptation of H.G. Wells' as Independence Day is an adaptation from Wells' The
War of the Worlds.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Todd Solondz has made three films, two of which became major arthouse hits. But, as is always the case whenever an independent filmmaker finds some measured support, soon the criticism follows. Voyeur, pervert, misogynist, sexual deviant, sadist, masochist -- Hester Pryne was lucky to have only one name pegged to her chest.
I happened to be one of the biggest supporters of those two later films (his first, Fear, Anxiety & Depression failed to really strike me, nor anyone else), naming 1996's Welcome to the Dollhouse as one of the year's best and placing 1998's Happiness at #4 on my top ten list for the year. And yet, as I sit thinking fondly on all those films, I cannot help but reflect the fact that Solondz has worked in all his films as a voyeur, pervert, misogynist, sexual deviant, sadist, and masochist. A Todd Solondz film is built around self-hate, people going listlessly in a life determined to destroy them. There are happy people in Solondz' films, but ultimately, their happiness is at the expense of the protagonists. That's why the ending of Happiness strikes such a chord -- it's not a disgusting moment at a dinner table but a culmination of all the pain and torment that has lead a character like Rufus Read's Billy Maplewood.
The halfhearted attempt at conformity seen in Welcome to the Dollhouse also gives the audience this ending feeling, but none of this is present in Solondz' latest effort, Storytelling. This movie, in the form of two completely unconnected stories, not only attempts to touch upon the terrain without any satisfaction at the end, but also to counter at all his critics. The raping of a character, the exploitation of individuals, and the sadness that this involves all reflect what Solondz has done in his own career. When the film's storytellers -- there are three in all -- remark that they are trying to hit at the truth, they are, at the same time, speaking for their de facto creator. Solondz, as screenwriter and director, has created a barrage of characters that not only relate what Solondz has tried to do in the past, but also sprinkled a few people in to confess for his own fixations.
The first story is called "Fiction," set around 1985 in an unnamed university (filmed at Adelphi in Garden City, New York). Vi (Blair) is a sullen co-ed with streaked blonde and pink hair and a boyfriend, Marcus (Fitzpatrick), with cerebral palsy. After sex -- the first image we get of them -- Marcus quickly becomes intent on reading his latest story to Vi, a story that he wrote about their own relationship for a fiction writing class they have. But the teacher (Wisdom), a grandiose black man whose novel A Sunday Lynching won a Pulitzer Prize, is not willing to credit Marcus for simply being challenged -- he rips through the young man's work as happily as a predator aiming on some helpless prey.
This story's ramifications are not set in what happens in this first critique session, which serves as the story's only bit of exposition, but in that night and then at the next critique session. Selma Blair effectively creates the prey for the teacher's next attack. While she is willing to do almost anything he might ask, her fluidity towards him is what finally destroys her halfway through the story. As people bandy out their own criticisms of her story (i.e. life), she must rebuke them that this is not what she was going for. The class seems to enjoy calling her names -- voyeur, pervert, misogynist, sexual deviant, sadist, masochist -- as she sits knowing the truth to all these classifications.
Moments later, Solondz has moved his attention to another story, called "Nonfiction." Solondz doppelganger Toby Oxman (Giamatti), a failed New York actor, wants to direct a documentary on the current state of high school students. He finds a good subject in Scooby Livingston (Webber), a not-so-bright kid who finds misunderstanding from his happy upper-middle-class family -- aggressive father Marty (Goodman), tolerating mother Fern (Hagerty), reputation-minded middle brother Brady (Fleiss), and genius youngest brother Mikey (Osser) -- due to his disinterest in college, vegetarianism, and possible homosexuality.
As Toby continues his work on the documentary, he soon moves from a caring man looking at his subjects to a person taking some catharsis out of finding that their suburban happiness is merely a façade and that his unhappiness is one of the few truthful things he can find. However, by learning this, Toby gains satisfaction with life and the fact that his story is actually better than the dolts he is documenting -- he too has become a voyeur, pervert, misogynist, sexual deviant, sadist, and masochist. Probably the most remarkable fact about "Nonfiction" is not in the way that Solondz attempts to condone his filmmaking sins, but in the way he turns the audience around on Scooby. Like Dawn Weiner, Bill Mapplewood, and all the other sad-sacks in Solondz' films, the audience forges a relationship with them and their problems regardless of the odd satisfaction that seems to be coming from behind the camera.
Nevertheless, Storytelling begins as a well made
thesis on self-criticism and the reliability of truth in telling a story and then turns
into another walk through Solondz' unkempt wonderland of depression. The effectiveness of
the complete film is ultimately muted by the unreliability of the second half's purpose --
neither the audience nor Solondz seem to have an idea behind the approach he has taken.
Toby, Scooby, and the rest are all interesting characters -- if given a complete film
similar to Happiness, their stories might have worked better, but the end result
is that only Lupe Ontiveros gives the film any real structure to stand on. Her work as the
unappreciated Livingston family maid gives the movie a heart to build its ramming misery
around. Her final act in the movie serves as the film's closest semblance to the great
endings of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, but Todd Solondz was
not finished with his main story in "Nonfiction" and effectively loses his
fleeting moment of genius. Where "Fiction," like the other two films, serves as
a great work on the melancholy world captured by Solondz, "Nonfiction" only
reminds us that, in the end, his works are consequently the self-effacing musings of a
voyeur, pervert, misogynist, sexual deviant, sadist, and masochist.
BY: DAVID PERRY
For a director like Tom Shadyac, sadism is a way of life. Shadyac's Patch Adams stands as one of the most manipulatively abhorrent motion pictures of recent day, only finding company in fellow torturous movies like K-Pax, A Beautiful Mind, and Pay It Forward. And now, with Dragonfly, Shadyac returns to the oeuvre of sick kids and misguided sorrow to make a movie that yearns to have as many handkerchiefs drawn from Middle American purses as is possible. What marks this film worse than some of those other films, though, is that it is completely unrepentant in its pandering -- this is a movie that takes the low road at the beginning and only works to find as many wrong turns as possible.
The ad campaign for Dragonfly has pointed out a surprise ending, trying to create the misconception that seeing this film will create a similar revelation to watching The Sixth Sense or The Others. But Dragonfly has no surprise at the ending; yes, what happens is not necessarily something that comes to mind upon first glance, but it certainly is not something that will make people jump in their chairs. The "surprise" at the end of Dragonfly would be like having a movie end with a character ordering ham and cheese on rye: pedestrian and uninteresting.
Downward-spiraling Kevin Costner plays Joe Darrow, a Chicago emergency room doctor who is mourning the death of his wife Emily (Thompson). She was a medical volunteer for the children of Venezuela, killed when her caravan went off a cliff and crashed into the river below. Her body was never found but she was presumed dead -- now, without a body to cry over, Joe has come to believe that she is perhaps still alive. This is not helped as factors begin to convince him that she is trying to contact him from some type of pergatory: a parrot that believes she has come home, flat-lining children who say they talked to her, and a constant haunting by the image of the dragonfly that graced her shoulder in the form of a birthmark.
People -- friend Charlie Dickinson (Rifkin), neighbor Miriam Belmont (Bates) -- try to convince Joe that he is merely too grief-stricken to understand what he thinks he's seeing, but he'll have nothing of it. Like Charlie in Fright Night 2, no spiritual or psychological help will convince him that he is not seeing what he sees.
A grossly misdirecting, poorly written, and horribly acted film, Dragonfly turns into the type of film that people only joke about being made. If that paean of television The Critic was still on, I have little doubt that it would have enjoyed making fun of this, the umpteenth, bad film from Kevin Costner.
In the decade since JFK, Costner has appeared in horrendous (and sometimes notorious) films like Waterworld, For Love of the Game, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Message in a Bottle, The War, Wyatt Earp, The Bodyguard, and The Postman. Ten years of bad films with only a few good ones (namely, Tin Cup, A Perfect World, and Thirteen Days) does not bear the marks of a modern Olivier, and Dragonfly, one of his worst, is proof that he's not even a modern Griffin Dunne.
Some have referred to particular films as those where the
audience needs to check their brains at the door -- but those films, idiotic works like The
Fast and the Furious and Gone in Sixty Seconds, are generally affable once
you get beyond the lackluster intellect. Dragonfly lacks even that -- it is dumb
enough to call for the audience's metaphorical cranium checking-in, but never delivers
anything to watch otherwise. Dragonfly is an attempt at thinking man's cinema
without the devotion to mental perception, a Shakespeare wannabe written by a monkey and
read by a dyslexic.
Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for Hart's War and Return to Never Land (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre). Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."
(Dir: Gregory Hoblit, Starring Colin Farrell, Terrence Dashon Howard, Bruce Willis, Marcel Iures, Cole Hauser, Cole Hauser, and Linus Roache)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Hart's War, a Paths of Glory-lite, feels
like a thirty-minute story stretched into a two-hour courtroom melodrama. The barrage of
war by prisoner films -- ranging from Jakob the Liar to The Last Castle
-- saw its heyday with Grand Illusion, Stalag 17, and The Great
Escape, leaving little open for anything else. The years since Tigerland
have not been kind to Colin Farrell, in just a couple years he has gone from hot property
to the star of mid-grade crap like this. Gregory Hoblit delivers some fine visuals, but a
self-righteous screenplay makes this into a pain throughout.
|Return to Never Land
(Dir: Robin Budd and Donovan Cook, Voices include Harriet Owen, Blayne Weaver, Corey Burton, Jeff Bennett, and Kath Soucie)
BY: DAVID PERRY
When Walt Disney said there would be no sequels to his
animated features, this was the exact reason -- he knew that resurrecting much of his
films would exhaust some of the creativity of those early films, degrading them. But Roy
Disney with Michael Eisner are more interested in capitalism than creativity, meaning that
a poor excuse for a follow up to Peter Pan arrives in the form of Return to
Never Land. Fantasia/2000 and Toy Story 2 this is not, as the film
banally tries to make London's WWII bombings into an excuse for loss of childhood
imagination and, ultimately, the threat to Pan and Tinker-Bell. Smaller children might
enjoy it, but people who fondly remember the original will find this as a poor substitute.
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