2 items from 1999
10 September 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »
Seeing a title such as "Best Laid Plans", a moviegoer just knows those plans will go dramatically awry. So the challenge facing these young and talented filmmakers is to challenge the audience: to work both with and against expectations, to dazzle the viewers with misdirection and create twists where turns are anticipated.
Writer Ted Griffin and director Mike Barker have laid out their dramatic plans with such charming deception and wit that this Fox Searchlight release should score not only with lovers of genre movie-making but with sophisticated audiences of all ages. The lack of marquee-value actors does put a burden on Fox marketing mavens, but if they target the right audiences, word-of-mouth will sell the film.
Griffin's screenplay is somewhat reminiscent of David Mamet's writing in his elaborate con game stories such as "House of Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner" -- only Griffin has shifted the scene to the pulp-fiction world of small towns and the losers who reside there, characters who would just about kill their mothers to escape the anomie and despair of their existences.
There is a risk in detailing too much of the plot, since its discovery is what the film is all about. Let's just say that late one night a couple of guys -- Bryce (Josh Brolin), a college grad just returned to his home town of Tropico, and Nick (Alessandro Nivola), who dropped out of college to take care of his dying dad -- share several drinks in a Tropico bar. Then a jailbait sexpot (Reese Witherspoon) happens to wander in at the right (wrong?) moment.
Nick splits, and Bryce and the girl get friendlier. They return to the home where Bryce is housesitting. Events swiftly spin out of control, and Bryce phones Nick later that night in desperation. The girl claims Bryce raped her. Options narrow as everyone feels trapped, and pretty soon someone is desperate enough to think the unthinkable -- murder.
Griffin's mischievous script is beautifully served by Barker's stylish direction. Barker, a former cameraman with a number of BBC films and one feature to his directorial credit, may be one of the most talented directors to emerge from the United Kingdom since Danny Boyle.
Clearly, Barker knows how to work with actors to build tension from scene to scene. And he is most definitely in command of the film's visual design.
Working with production designer Sophie Becher, he creates the ultimate film-noir small town. Tropico (portrayed by some of the more desolate patches of Bakersfield, Calif.) is a Nowhereville of stark white streets and pale-green shops, virtually devoid of people and with only an occasional battered red car chugging down the boulevard.
In contrast, the luxury home where Bryce is housesitting is a bizarre melange of purple and green, chrome and glass, with hideous shag carpets and pink lampshades -- a perfect setting for nightmare.
Tropico manages to be both wide open and claustrophobic. Ben Seresin's camera emphasizes its dreary, horizontal lines that make it look almost like a deserted movie back lot. It's truly a place that life has abandoned.
Witherspoon perfectly captures the suffocation one feels in such a hopeless town and the yearning to break away. Nivola's character has a streak of independence, but without Witherspoon he lacks the emotional resources to make the Big Move. Brolin conveys the pathetic swagger of the returning college grad, a swagger that quickly disintegrates as he finds himself getting in way over his head.
Barker also gets solid performances from actors in smaller roles, performances that resonate with increasing intensity by the time the final credits are rolling and all the pieces have finally fit into place.
BEST LAID PLANS
Fox 2000 Pictures presents
a Dogstar Films Production
Producers: Alan Greenspan, Betsy Beers, Chris Moore
Director: Mike Barker
Screenwriter: Ted Griffin
Executive producer: Mike Newell
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designer: Sophie Becher
Music: Craig Armstrong
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editor: Sloane Klevin
Nick: Alessandro Nivola
Lissa: Reese Witherspoon
Bryce: Josh Brolin
Bad Ass Dude: Rocky Carroll
Jimmy: Terrence Howard
Barry: Jamie Marsh
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R
When it came time to give "The Mod Squad" the big-screen treatment, there were a few options.
The movie version could be (a) set in the late 1960s counterculture like the TV series; (b) contemporized with a late 1990s spin; or (c) given the satirical "Austin Powers" fish-out-of-water treatment with, everybody's favorite hippie cops suddenly finding themselves having to cope on the cusp of a new millennium.
As it turned out, the filmmakers went with (b), as in boring, turning out a dull, stone-faced, listless approximation of the original minus the Nehru collars, the afros, the groovy music and the other happening touches that gave the otherwise generic crime series its pop flavor.
Stripped of its spirit and weighted down with countless scenes of mind-numbing introspection, this "Mod Squad" will likely have to amend its old "no badges, no guns" credo with the words "no audience."
Taking over where Michael Cole, Clarence Williams III and Peggy Lipton left off, Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps and Claire Danes are Pete, Linc and Julie, respectively, a trio of juvies on probation who are recruited by fatherly Capt. Adam Greer (Dennis Farina) to infiltrate the seedy Southern California drug and crime scene.
Pete, as before, is the troubled rich kid who was booted out of his Beverly Hills home and subsequently nabbed for breaking and entering. Linc, now from the 'hood (formerly the ghetto), has been charged with arson; while reformed drug addict Julie (once the runaway daughter of a San Francisco hooker) was brought in for assault.
Their assignment is to work undercover in the kind of establishments where the scourge of society preys on the impressionable young. But when a cache of drugs goes AWOL from the police lock-up and Capt. Greer turns up dead, the kids suddenly have to fend for themselves.
The picture's corrupt cop plot line (credited writers include director Scott Silver & Stephen Kay and Kate Lanier) is so tired and uninspired that even the characters comment on it. Both script and direction cry out for a hefty shot of adrenalin.
And while Danes, Ribisi and Epps are all proven, capable actors, here they're all hopelessly unconvincing as streetwise delinquents. They might as well be doing a production of "The Mod Squad: The School Play".
Certainly their written characters, as such, aren't much help. Although Ribisi's Pete has been outfitted with a short fuse that provides a little comic relief, both Danes' Julie and particularly Epps' Linc have been given precious little in the way of defining personalities.
The supporting players, including Farina, Josh Brolin as a potential flame from Julie's past and Richard Jenkins as an adversarial detective, find themselves in the same, uncharted boat. Only Michael Lerner gets to have a little fun as an oddball, drug-dealing music talent manager.:
At least "The Mod Squad" gets the desired visual tone right thanks to Ellen Kuras' ("Swoon") edgy camerawork; while the audio end is given a jittery alterno-techno-hip hop hybrid courtesy of composer BC Smith and an eclectic song mix that includes contributions from Busta Rhymes, Bjork, Curtis Mayfield and the Crash Test Dummies.
THE MOD SQUAD
Executive producers: Aaron Spelling, David Ladd
Based on characters created by: Buddy Ruskin
Director: Scott Silver
Producers: Men Myron, Alan Riche, Tony Ludwig
Screenwriters: Stephen Kay & Scott Silver and Kate Lanier
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Production designer: Patrick Sherman
Editor: Dorian Harris
Costume designer: Arianne Phillips
Music: BC Smith
Music supervisor: Randy Gerston
Casting: Christine Sheaks
Julie: Claire Danes
Linc: Omar Epps
Pete: Giovanni Ribisi
Capt. Adam Greer: Dennis Farina
Billy Waites: Josh Brolin
Det. Briggs: Steve Harris
Det. Robert Mothershed: Richard Jenkins
Howard: Michael Lerner
Running time -- 94 minutes
MPAA rating: R
2 items from 1999
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