Volume 4, Number 24
This Week's Reviews: Bad Company, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Mr. Deeds, The Bourne Identity, Windtalkers, Scooby-Doo.
This Week's Omissions: Dogtown and Z-Boys.
BY: DAVID PERRY
You can count on one hand how many original ideas are used in Joel Schumacher's Bad Company. In fact, in retrospect, you might not even need that one hand. Not that this is anything new film a film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who has found the formulas for a two successful action films and reused them in as many forms as possible.
Known for his schlock and sentiment in the guise of testosterone-fueled action sequences, Bruckheimer has discovered a way to hypnotize audiences into marching towards his films every time a new one comes out, regardless of the fact that each one is just a reworking of a previous Bruckheimer production. Any film from him can use one of the following synopses: "mankind is in trouble, life as we know it hasn't a chance; but the heroics of a few good men may save civilization, even if it means their own lives," or "he could not be more different from his colleagues, but the world depends on his knowledge and expertise and he's willing to ally with everyone else if it may stop the impending attack of a factionalist group."
Class 1: Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Black Hawk Down; Class 2: Thief, Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys, The Rock, Con Air, and Enemy of the State. There are a few exceptions -- Flashdance, Dangerous Minds, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Remember the Titans -- and sometimes the groups intermix (like Bad Boys), but very rarely are any of them worth watching.
Bad Company fits into most of those groupings: mankind is in trouble so the CIA comes to the rescue and there's a black sheep brought in to break the homogeny of the CIA. Oh, and it too is not worth watching.
Chris Rock gets to play the fish out of water as Jake Hayes, a two-bit New York ticket scalper. When his identical brother, who he never knew of, dies, Jake is propositioned to take his place. The only problem is that Jake's brother was a well-educated, effete CIA agent undercover in the Czech Republic.
The instigator of this replacement is CIA operative Gaylord Oakes (Hopkins), who owes his life to the deceased and sees getting this deal -- an arms purchase from a slimy Russian dealer (Stormare) -- as important to stopping a nuclear explosion on American soil (the film, like the similarly themed The Sum of All Fears, was made before September 11). He offers Jake $25,000 (which the scalper haggles to $100,000) and then attempts to cultivate the Jake so that he may be like his brother, which simply means that Jake must learn to correctly drink wine and listen to classical music.
Tempers are flared and double-crossings occur, leaving Jake in the middle of a plot that is much more than just buying a nuclear warhead from the Russians. By the climax, Jake and Oakes are in shootouts and Manhattan car chases that are meant to thrill the audience, even though the inexplicable tone that Schumacher, Bruckheimer, Rock, and the screenwriters are going for means that nonstop tone changes and a murky look leave the audience just trying to figure out what is happening and how they are meant to feel about it.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Mark Goldblatt do not help matters by making this one of the least watchable messes this year. The production design seems to be based upon the idea that America is tired of lights and darks, so let's go with grays. Meanwhile, the construction of the various scenes seems to be slower than what you'd find in a Michael Bay film, but not much less incomprehensible.
Chris Rock is not a terribly untalented comedian, but has never really had a chance to show off in the lead roles he's taken. He played the same unfunny role in his last starring turn, last year's forgettable Down to Earth, making it harder to remember some of the finer supporting roles he's been allowed to work with (including a terrific performance alongside Morgan Freeman in Nurse Betty).
Rock has been regulated to old race-on-race jokes that have been performed by everyone from Eddie Murphy to Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson. Nearly every quip that comes from Rock is old and overused, and even he seems disturbed to be lowering his act to such a state. Both Rock and Anthony Hopkins (in desperate need to buy some No-Doz with plump paycheck he got for the film) seem desperately distraught with the film, which gives about as much attention to them as a normal Bruckheimer production would. The producer would probably be more willing to decide the importance of the gum Hopkins chews than the performance he gives.
This is especially disturbing considering that the film
comes from Joel Schumacher, the onetime hack who has recently proven himself with indie
films like Flawless and Tigerland. But the Schumacher at work here seems
to be the same one that thought the darkness of 8mm would end the criticisms for
his overly bright Batman films. He was wrong on that point -- it was the intimacy
he showed with independent films that made us stop complaining about his past
indiscretions. And it's movies like Bad Company that bring all those objections
|Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
BY: DAVID PERRY
Often, we are lucky enough to see gaggles of great performers brought together in their later years -- a sort of reminiscent All-Stars game. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood definitely falls in this category, bringing us Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, Maggie Smith, Shirley Knight, and James Garner together at last. But, unlike this year's British equivalent Last Orders (with Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, and Helen Mirren), their union seems to be for naught: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood could (and probably should) be forgotten as soon as possible, regardless of what fine performers have been ushered in.
The elders join Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Cherry Jones, and Angus MacFadyen in a tedious gender-dividing tearjerker that tries to smugly paint all old southern women with a façade of unlimited kookiness. They are southern belles in that they have drawls and drink in the best society get-togethers, but just so that the filmmakers do not use a southern cliché that would immediately damn the film, director and writer Callie Khouri makes sure to tell us that they are not inherited racists. In fact, when present to any bigotry, they get into food fights.
Despite yearning unendingly to be in the same level of them, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has nothing on the most memorable female sentimentality-issue movie like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias. Even though those films had the same southern flunkies and feminine charm without any prejudices, they at least kept their characters on a plane that was somewhat believable. The histrionics of these people seems more fitting for a sitcom than a feature film. Think Divine Secrets of the Designing Women -- it'll fit well in between showings of Golden Girls on Lifetime.
At the center of the film is a semi-sorority called the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a blood sister collective that came about when four Louisiana school chums slipped out of their austere homes, sat around a fire, and beckoned rites to Indian gods. Today, they are geriatrics moving about society like characters from a Garry Marshall film instead of heading to that Todd Solondz retirement center. Vivi (Burstyn), Teensy (Flanagan), Necie (Knight), and Caro (Smith) have remained close throughout all the years, despite the occasional bumps in the sisterhood. Perhaps their friendship was easy to keep since they -- like Dione and Cher in Clueless -- feel a closeness to other people with absurd names.
Vivi is the de facto leader, though her problems have been the main hurtles for the group. Through her years of poor parenting, alcoholism and estranged lovers, she has made a rather poor impression on her daughter Sidda (Bullock). Now, Sidda has moved far away from her mother to become a New York playwright. For 7 years, they've been apart and without any communication, until a Time interview with Sidda unveils some of Sidda's worst memories about her parenting. Vivi goes into conniptions, cutting out all memories of Sidda from the house and telling her daughter that she is dead to her.
Distraught over their friend's disturbance, the three other Ya-Ya sisters kidnap Sidda and bring her back to Louisiana. This is not a plan to reunite mother and daughter, but an attempt to educate Sidda of why Vivi is like she is. Evidently telling this information to Sidda in New York would be too much a hassle.
Using flashbacks, the audience learns of all of Vivi's hardships and all the tough times she put her daughters and son through (the film inexplicable deletes all memories of Sidda's siblings in the modern scenes). Sidda comes to understand everything, though all this remains rather ambiguous to everyone else even as the credits begin to roll. Are the actions of young Vivi (Judd) really innocuous? Did we really learn anything about the dynamics of the relationship that wasn't visible from the very beginning?
But, in the end, there's one true question that rings in
the minds of everyone sitting in the dark theatre: "Did those fine actresses lessen
the fact that this movie was a waste of time?" I think most people will come to the
Importance of Being Earnest
BY: DAVID PERRY
Hiring Adam Sandler to recreate a role made famous by Gary Cooper could be one of the most insulting casting calls this year. What's next: Freddie Prinze, Jr., as Roger Thornhill in a new North by Northwest.
The bastion of modern satire, The Simpsons, was ahead of its time when it dealt with a similar situation as the new film Mr. Deeds. In the 1999 episode "Beyond Blunderdome," Mel Gibson appears as himself taking over the James Stewart role in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The actor sticks to the original story at first, but suddenly turns to the action theatrics of The Patriot when down-home values are deemed too boring by everyday man and interim consultant Homer Simpson. For that reason, Mel Gibson turns the classic into a star vehicle that looks unimpressively like so many of his previous works.
The same can be said for Mr. Deeds, which fittingly comes from another Frank Capra film, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, where the down-home values are thrown aside in an attempt to make a movie that meets the juvenile humor that seems to sell better than anything from the Frank Capra or Preston Sturges mold. The star, in this case, happens to be Adam Sandler, who has become the principal advocate of these stories.
I still liked his most charming turn in The Wedding Singer, but have been consistently disturbed by everything else, ranging from the bad early duo of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore to the torturous late duo of The Waterboy and Little Nicky. His next film is Punch-Drunk Love from Paul Thomas Anderson, which promises to be of a different form and, thankfully, more fully realized than the fractured companion pieces to Goodnight Moon he's been diligently working on for the past seven years.
What was once a story of an affable gentleman trying to make sense of the big city lifestyle that tries desperately to devour him and his principals becomes an easy excuse to go with more infantile jokes of Sandler shouting at and abusing people. One particularly telling scene early on has Sandler's Longfellow Deeds destroy a restaurant when a few guests begin ridiculing his small town naïveté. Had Gary Cooper's Deeds done anything like this, Frank Capra would have used him as a social villain, not the protagonist.
This is not to say that the new Mr. Deeds should be criticized simply for its reliance, or lack thereof, on the original story, but instead for its inopportune choices in trying to resurrect it. The original story could have easily been made into a fine film -- despite what some have said, The Majestic proves it with its fine winsomeness, though burdened by over-length and a beguiling feeling of self-righteousness -- but that is not the interests of director Steven Brill and screenwriter Tim Herlihy, who see the original scenario as a nice parable to play in the background of Sandler's normal, unfunny fits.
Winona Ryder has been hired to play the love interest and, though her casting seems horrendously inept, shows some promise in this unglamorous, tiny characterization. The actress, who proved her impersonating chops a couple weeks ago portraying Björk on Saturday Night Live, does play that starry-eyed kid well when she portrays the fronts as a high school nurse, though her work as the non-fiction reporter trying to get some tabloid information on Deeds seems to lack the bite that it needs. Everyday, 81-year-old Helen Thomas shows more life at the White House press briefings.
The best of the cast, by far, is John Turturro, who brings back his Jesus Quintana voice in the body of a Spanish valet who served Deeds and his business predecessor Blake (Presnell). The laughs still remain even though the reactions of Sandler and Peter Gallagher, as the competitor to Deeds' industry, fall short of the perfection of Turturro's actions. Even when Sandler is letting a scene fall apart with unfunny jokes, Turturro successfully brings it back to life with an unflinching line reading and a devotion to perfect visual gags.
Thankfully Turturro gets more screen time than expected,
playing third fiddle in this two-star feature. His spot-on performance keeps the film from
wallowing in the traditionally tiresome dreck of an Adam Sandler movie, giving the movie
moments of surreal genius to counter puerile drivel. Nonetheless, Homer Simpson would
probably say that this ruins the film.
Princess and the Warrior
of All Fears
|The Bourne Identity
BY: DAVID PERRY
It is hard to imagine a film culture where the intelligence organizations are not entities of corruption and shady dealings. In truth -- at least from my outsider vantage point -- the only real problems with American intelligence organizations like the National Security Council, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Intelligence Agency is that they were not working with each other in the post-Freeh, pre-September 11 atmosphere. But this is a moot point for screenwriters, who need villains when the stock company of Nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, and grassroots militias cannot be used again. If an organization like the CIA is going to be secretive, why not turn them into an antagonist.
There are exceptions -- like the Jack Ryan and James Bond films and the recent Hopkins-Rock vehicle Bad Company -- but normally any movie with a spy group as part of the story will show that there are some evildoings going on behind their façades of dark suits trying to break terrorist groups and investigate international problems. Even movies with spy characters show the organizations as being corrupt at the top, as was seen in The X-Files series and last year's Spy Game.
This truism does not fall short of continuing into the release of The Bourne Identity, which comes from an equally serviceable but certainly less spectacular Robert Ludlum novel. The CIA that the film portrays is another one that sets itself at the standards of saving their own necks before the necks of their lower ranks and of the civilians. The casualness of one character's statement that there has been much "collateral damage" during the first half of the film does not seem to worry its upper-level bureaucrat. The work of a director of a spy agency in a film is certainly not the work of an ethically sound individual -- we had better keep a closer eye on Robert Mueller.
However, the CIA problems are but a subtle appendage to The Bourne Identity, an action thriller that could have just as easily called the spy organization SMERSH or KAOS, if not for its admittedly modest attempts at seeming realistic. Considering that most of this film takes place in Europe -- in fact, the only scenes in America are set in the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia -- any international organization, real or fictitious could have been used. The movie does try to set the film in a slight spy game of international intrigue involving a vocal African leader named Nykwana Wombosi (Akinnnouye-Agbaje), who's referred to with such a tinge in the pronunciation that any audience members can tell that the CIA heads would be happy if he just happened to fall on some fatal misfortune.
All this surrounds the travails of a young amnesiac (Damon), saved by fishermen off the coast of Marseilles with two bullet holes and a capsule holding bank information hidden under his skin. Since he has no idea who he is, he makes way to that endodermic Swiss bank account. After going through the account's safety deposit box, he finds a passport that says his name is Jason Bourne, then a passport that says he is John Knox, then a few more passports from different nations with different names. Even more disturbing is that the box is filled with thousands of dollars in international currency and a loaded gun.
Soon he is being pursued by Zurich police and agents from the CIA, though he has no idea why they are slightly interested in intercepting him and too fearful of his life to turn himself in. Unloading some cash on German vagabond Marie (Potente), Bourne, the name he decides to stick with, makes way towards Paris where he believes to have residence. Since CIA operatives have been sent to stop him, Bourne and Marie find that getting there is just a fraction of the problem.
Franka Potente continues to show great promise as a young actress, especially in this rare English-language attempt (her last, Blow, was an undistinguished waste of her talent; though her cameo in Storytelling was enjoyable). Her ability to shrug off things with a glare of her Germanic brow makes her the anchor to the stilted work given by Matt Damon. The young actor is a fine performer (as was proven in The Talented Mr. Ripley), but his action star credibility is about as flaccid as his chum Ben Affleck's. Damon can do the quick motion gymnastics needed for Bourne's most agile moments, but when the film needs him to show something more than just making fast moves of the hand, he seems more interested in getting back to the fight sequences.
Meanwhile, most of the film's best moments come from the supporting players, who turn out to be more important to the story than Potente (whose character seems to be an addition simply so that the film can have some form of romance) or Damon. Brian Cox and Chris Cooper play the CIA bigwigs with a panache that only these two could successfully pull off without making the seriousness seem overbearing. Also, Clive Owen gets to play a villain for once as Bourne's assassin equal, proving that even if the James Bond franchise never taps him to play the super-spy, they can always use him as a terrific enemy.
Director Doug Liman seems ill suited for the film, though he does some solid work with the location shooting. The director is known mainly for his deeper, more character driven stories in Swingers and Go. Finally choosing to use an additional cinematographer with Oliver Wood -- probably for the film's aerial and action shots -- Liman looses some of his previously grounded style. This is not to say that The Bourne Identity is a garish animal to look at, but it certainly needs no introduction through the director's previous works.
At its best, The Bourne Identity rises above this
by giving simple thrills in the guise of a spy thriller; at its worst, the film gets lost
in a parade of clichés and nerviness that makes the film into a silly mess. At least The
Sum of All Fears is more viscerally interesting. And plus, despite a far more
earth-shattering climax, it gives us some faith in what American intelligence is trying to
do for us.
BY: DAVID PERRY
Recent films like Enigma and U-571 have covered the German code during World War II pretty well, to the point that anyone who has seen Enigma and read some history books (David Kahn's Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943 is an especially interesting book on the task brought upon Poland and England to capture and decipher Enigma) should have a pretty good idea of what it was like for Alan Turing, et al. in their intellectual battle with the Nazis. But Enigma was just one of the codes that was used in that war, which had multitudes of different codes coming from each of the Allied and Axis countries.
One of the American attempts was the Windtalker code, which was used predominately on the Pacific front. It used the Navajo language to create a code that the Japanese could (and would) not decode. 300 Navajo soldiers were thrown into the battlefield to work with their regiments by sending codes of their locations to other regiments, all the while finding constant racism from their fellow soldiers who happen to be white.
And that's where John Woo's Windtalkers, a fictional film about the code and its 'talkers,' is overwhelmed. The director, whose stylish slam-bang oeuvre has never attempted anything as deep as race relations and, therefore, can only turn to hackneyed clichés that have been written into war films for decades and were once again employed by screenwriters Joe Batteer and John Rice. When his characters have guns against each other's head, that Woo action flare is burning, but when he's trying to deal with paper thin character development, the film falls apart.
The Navajo 'code talkers' for the movie are Privates Ben Yahzee (Beach) and Charles Whitehorse (Willie), who go through the rigorous training to learn these codes and pick up basic fighting skills before being babysat by white soldiers who are better trained and more reliable in the opinion of the marine flack. Sergeants Joe Enders (Cage) and Ox Henderson (Slater) are brought in as the escorts of Yahzee and Whitehorse, respectively, to make sure that strategically important knowledge known by these two does not fall into Japanese hands. They are to stick around the Windtalkers and defend them if under fire; however, if it looks like interception is highly possible, their mission is to kill their companions lest they give the code over to their captors.
Woo couldn't care less about the fact that the Windtalkers were completely barred from fighting regardless of whether they wanted to, but instead pits his characters in as many battles as he can possibly include between the stilted dialogue scenes. This is a movie literally built around its epic-scale battles, which are without a doubt the main interest of the director. His signature is on every napalm-filled explosion, every blood-strewn body; though the movie may try to convince the audience that it is about an important issue, Woo only tries to show them that he can control pyrotechnics.
Nearly every character of the film seems to come from a book on screenwriting: there's the yokel, the philosopher, the uniter, and the bigot. If this film had been at least interested in the real people who fought in World War II, as it tries to do, the screenwriters would have represented them with characters that are not so abhorrently one-dimensional.
This is nothing new for war films, of course. Early this
year, I made similar comments in relation to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down,
which worked with a different situation but used the same time-honored formulas. It may
have been disarmingly driven by its jingoist intentions, Randall Wallace's We Were
Soldiers actually proved to be a better character drama than any of the other war
film to come around lately. Windtalkers comes from the same mold as the Wallace movie,
where the action seems to be the main interest; but the breaking point comes in the way
each film treats its characters: Wallace has a love for his soldiers and their problems,
Woo just seems to be waiting until he can blow them up.
Silent Bob Strike Back
and the Pussycats
BY: DAVID PERRY
Every child growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s grew with the emergence of crap cartoons that were so bad that their camp qualities made them hypnotic. Now, two decades later, producers are trying their hardest to make these cartoons into movies out of a little nostalgia and a little laziness. Inspector Gadget and Josie and the Pussycats were the beginning, working up to the granddaddy of camp cartoons, Scooby-Doo.
And I'll admit it, lowbrow and as decidedly stupid as the show was, I was a Scooby-Doo addict in my formative years. Every Saturday morning, I'd happily rustle up some cereal and sit contentedly as the Mystery Inc. gang would discover that the mischievous ghost scaring people was really some greedy old man. I did not care that the show was built around the same formula every single time, there was something unquestionably great about it -- even now I cannot put a finger on it (The youth stopping the corruption of the adults? The psychedelic low-economy animation? Maybe even the occasional addition of pop figures Batman and Gomez Addams?), but it still sits in my memories as one of the grand achievements of that 1970s cheap cartoon renaissance that found regular airplay throughout the early 1980s. I didn't really like anything else from Hanna-Barbara (with the exception of The Jetsons), but no one could pry me from my Scooby-Doo, even when it was one of those The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo episodes with Vincent Price (truth be told, as I got older I still would occasionally watch A Pup Named Scooby-Doo).
So, one would think, I am one person that the new film version of Scooby-Doo was made for. With great happiness, it unveils itself to theatres across the nation in an attempt to bring in that nostalgia factor and convince some Generation X parents to take their kids to something that should cross generational boundaries. Eddie Izzard, in the oft quoted Dressed to Kill, equated Shaggy and Scooby to Falstaff in their far-reaching accessibility -- as he puts it, with the American foreign policy making international tourism harder, the easiest way for an American to get on the good side of a European (other than saying you are Canadian) is to simply say "Shaggy and Scooby." Izzard calls it the "international credit card."
But what is most discouraging about the new Scooby-Doo is that it only works for the latter group: kids will enjoy the film for its indiscriminate goofiness and its reliance on fart-humor, however, those of us searching for some nostalgia (even of the spoof sense) will be disappointed that this film knows the all the show's clichés but not what to do with them. It's like watching someone dance when they know all the steps but just cannot get the beat.
For a few moments, this problem almost seems to have been passed by the filmmakers with an opening that enjoys its proximity to the source material (even if it digresses into an idiotic climax involving Pamela Anderson Lee). This sequence lasts barely fifteen minutes and, in its superiority to the rest of the movie, shows the underlying problem inherent in any feature length version of something as thin as Scooby-Doo. When the formula is specifically made for repetitions of 25 minutes, trying to stretch it into an 86-minute feature film is rather tedious.
This time the crew is attempting to discover the secret behind an island theme park that has returned most of its Spring Break partiers to their colleges as well-mannered adults. Fred (Prinze, Jr.), Daphne (Gellar), Velma (Cardellini), Shaggy (Lillard) and Scooby (voiced by Innes) are at odds over various problems that occurred in the case that opens the film. But their troubles dissipate as they find the resort is taking away the plasmatic spirits of the kids and placing them in a cauldron while their bodies are taken over by demons intent on world domination. Unacceptably, screenwriter James Gunn looses sight of the formula when the film most needs it -- Hanna-Barbara would never have used real demons for a story, just covetous geriatrics.
Another hitch comes in the form of the film's star wattage,
which means that the three least interesting characters get an inconceivable large amount
of screen time compared to the real stars Shaggy and Scooby. I couldn't care less about
Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar playing starry eyed -- not only are their
scenarios completely uninteresting, but they also give performances bland enough to make
the audience wonder if the animators digitally added them while they were working on