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Psycho (1998)
Waste of celluloid, 11 February 1999

Someone, anyone, should have stopped before they had moved a muscle towards the production of this movie, and asked themselves, "How can I improve upon a masterpiece?" Answer: you can't. So why bother? Psycho (1998) is pointless and badly botched in many ways. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

1) The virtually shot-by-shot remake keeps all of the anachronisms inherent in the original screenplay. Not that the screenplay was anachronistic in 1960, but it is now, 40 yrs. later. Would a single girl driving by herself sleep all night on the side of the road? More than likely, if someone sneaks into a bathroom trying to kill someone in the shower today, she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. Goodbye, Norman. Psycho preyed on the fears of '50's America; '90's America is very different. It would not have been impossible to have pulled a remake of Psycho off, but it would have to be updated.

2) Gus van Sant is not the director to do this job. Was Craven, Sam Raimi maybe, but not Gus van Sant. He specializes in quirky, character studies, and Psycho needs outsized , almost melodramatic emotional punch. Besides, Psycho has already been successfully updated and remade - 1978's Halloween, by John Carpenter.

3) The casting is all wrong. Vince Vaughn just comes across as creepy, something Anthony Perkins never did. Perkins performance was definitive and dogged him his whole career. It's impossible to improve upon. Anne Heche is also wrong, she's pixieish, lacking the carnality and voluptuousness Janet Leigh brought to the role. She wouldn't get anybody's juices flowing, even a lonely loser like Norman Bates.

4) There's a scene where Norman is watching Marion through the hole in the wall. Wrong. Norman represses his sexual urges; if he had release, he wouldn't have to call on mother to blow off steam. There's an additional scene where Marion's sister is going through Norman's room. Again, wrong. Norman is not a pervert or creepy, he's got much bigger problems than that.

5) One of the rationales given for this remake is that today's audiences want to see it in color. Hitchcock could have made the movie in color too, but thought black and white suited the dark material better. As usual, Hitchcock was right.

Avoid this stinker, and rent the original. Hitchcock's genius puts almost every director working today to shame, and it shows in every frame.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
No babe in the woods, 9 February 1999

"What the pig says, goes," intones Babe's new friend, a pitt bull who enforces this new decree with all the subtlety of a goodfella. In order for a movie to get away with that sort of line, it has to be firmly in the realm of magic realism, and Babe: Pig in the City, is just that. This movie is another in a long list of very good animated and semi-animated films (i.e. Small Soldiers) that has come out in the last few years. It solidifies my theory that animated movies and T.V. shows are better than most live-action ones. Babe: Pig in the City isn't animated, and maybe not even semi-animated, although there are enough special effects in this movie that one could make a case that it is, but I discuss it in this context because most people think animated movies, and kids' movies, are actually for kids. Nothing could be farther from the truth; many so-called kids movies are family movies in the sense that adults will enjoy them too.

I mention this because there has been talk that Babe:Pig in the City is too dark for kids. There are scenes that might be too intense for very young kids, but the movie isn't intended for the very young. Neither was the first Babe movie. These movies are for grownups, darn it, talking animals or not!

That said, see this movie. It's not quite as good as the original, but the vision and imagination behind it is as good. The story revolves around Mrs. Hoggett and Babe having to go to the city to make money and save the farm. The city, however, is no place for these country bumpkins, and Babe must rely on his generous and giving heart for survival. The movie introduces a new raft of animal characters - cats practicing arias, dogs with paralyzed back legs who get around with a cart, and my favorite, world-weary circus chimpanzees and a too cool for life oranguatan. If these guys don't soften your heart, nothing will. The special effects are superb, you are transported to a city of cities, every city of the world melded into one. And a simple story of a pig with a higher sense of morality than most humans. Shame on us.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
a small thin red line, 25 January 1999

Small Soldiers, with its numerous inside jokes and references to other movies, shamelessly invites comparisons with other movies. It has been compared to Toy Story, for obvious reasons, and Gremlins, an affinity aided by the fact that Joe Dante is the director of both Small Soldiers and Gremlins. I'm going to compare it to a movie most wouldn't think of comparing it to - Starship Troopers.

I make that comparison because both Small Soldiers and Starship Troopers have a violent, ironic understructure its intended audience is going to miss. Let me clarify. Starship Troopers was a sci-fi action movie, with lots of blood and gore. It also had a vaguely Nazian, militaristic backdrop which was supposed to be satirical and ironic (look at all the pretty people marching off to their gung-ho death!) But the intended audience, teenagers, are not going to get that joke. Most teenagers couldn't you tell the years WWII were waged, never mind get the totalitarian overtones. Small Soldiers does the same thing - it offers a satire on militarism and violence, but the targeted audience of little kids is not going to get it. All they're going to see are dismembered dolls, life-threatening attacks on adults, and a lot of scary "gunfire" and fireballs. This movie isn't appropriate for little kids at all.

That's not to say it isn't any good, just deceptive. Older kids, and adults with a touch of kid left in them, will enjoy it. The plot revolves around toys that come to life, and adjust and learn from life, because of an advanced computer chip rejected by the military (James Cameron, where are you?) The movie does a nice reversal by making the G.I.Joe - type good guys the bad guys, and the Gargonites, the ugly enemy, the good guys. They have to quit being losers and fight for themselves, and who can't relate to that? The plot is archetypal but solid, its fun, and the special effects are really good, by the inimitable Stan Winston. But its intensity and its targeted audience are way out of whack. But this movie will help accomplish one thing - the death of the idea that animated, and partially animated, movies are just for kids.

The Siege (1998)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
thoughtful, provocative... but still fails, 22 January 1999

The Siege is a movie that can fool you. It is well acted, with the likes of Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, and Tony Shalhoub (who's a looong ways from Wings here) strutting their bad self, well directed by Edward Zwick (who's best film to date is Courage Under Fire), and at least tries to intertwine an action/thriller plot with a literate script. At first blush, she's smart and sexy.

But there are problems underneath the heavy makeup. The movie is a fantasy that explores the question of what might happen if Arab terrorists went wild in a major American city, in this case New York (obviously getting its inspiration from the Trade Center bombing). The movie wants it both ways - it wants the tension and action of fighting terrorist action on the street, but doesn't want to be anti-Arab. The movie makes constant references as to how most immigrants from Arab countries just want to be regular Americans, and has a huge crowd of people taking to the streets in support of Arabs being detained in internment camps by the Army. The Army, and its overzealous general, William Deveareax (Bruce Willis) is introduced in the last third of the movie as a sort of straw man. Suddenly they are the villains, trampling ordinary citizens' civil rights, as opposed to the terrorists, who are just killing people 600 at a time.

This is where the movie wants its cake and eat it too (to mix metaphors with the one I alluded to earlier). If it's Arab terrorists committing these heinous acts, then there's bound to be anti-Arab sentiment. That's the name of the game. I don't know what's worse - the inconsistency of The Siege, or the cartoon bad guys of True Lies. At least in True Lies it was impossible to take the Arab bad guys seriously; they were meant to be funny. The Siege could have been about the struggle between civil liberties and protection from terrorism in a democracy. But it's not. It's a thriller, it's about catching the bad guys. So the movie shuffles out all the usual technical gadgets, spy wizardry, news footage, etc, which is supposed to impress the viewer but confuses him instead. This is a very busy film, there's not enough time to let a development sink in before we are onto the next one. For a better movie on government abuse of power and technology, check out Enemy of the State.

(Just as a footnote, a very interesting idea is introduced along the lines of the CIA (and hence Americans) paying the price for its dirty work overseas. For don't kid yourself, the American government has a lot of blood on its hands. Now that would make for an interesting movie).

Blade (1998)
51 out of 87 people found the following review useful:
A palatable offering of Snipes and dice, 17 January 1999

Blade is everything Spawn wanted to be and wasn't. While Spawn was a loud, obnoxious, incoherent mess that should have stayed in Hell with its erstwhile hero, Blade is a relatively subdued (it's nice to actually hear the soundtrack), stylish, well-directed movie that actually tries to build empathy and pathos into the characters. While both are adaptations from comic-books, only one is a page-turner.

Blade, or Eric as his mom calls him, but which superhero would command respect with the name Eric, is half-man, half-vampire, made so by his mother, who survived a vampire attack long enough to give birth to him. This gives Blade a certain edge in his understandable grudge against vampires, "all of our strengths and none of our weaknesses" as his main vampire nemesis attests. The aforementioned nemesis is Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) who wants to unleash a vampire apocalypse on the world, decrying the Mafia-type approach that has served vampires so well up to this point - "humans are our food, not our allies," he explains. Blade is aided by his mentor/weapons specialist Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) and a female hematologist he rescued, Karen. Her expertise lends her to both create anti-vampire blood, and a possible cure for Blade that would make him fully human again. Although one gets the sense that Blade's fate isn't entirely tragic. He relishes kicking vampire butt.

The movie Blade succeeds for two reasons. It's technically polished, with good acting, excellent directing and production design, and awesome special effects - the way the vampires turn to skeletons and blow away like dried parchment when they die is way cool. There are three accomplished action sequences, the opening party scene which Blade inconveniently crashes, a brush with death on a subway, and the final conflict, with some special effects I can say, as a movie seasoned veteran, I've never seen before. The second reason is that Blade understands the inherent pull of the vampire myth. Vampirism represents a life given to sin, essentially. They are sensual creatures, dependent on flesh and blood for survival, shirking the light, and yet eternal, like evil fleshly lusts the Bible warns about. Vampires are not tragic, like Interview with a Vampire would have you believe, but fun, cool, and sexy. That's their power. Is not sin sexy? why would it be tempting otherwise? Vampires are cool because they live in sin without paying its consequences - death. But for that reason, they are the enemy and must die. For sin is, in the final analysis, bad. This essential good/evil conflict must be there for this type of story to work. Spawn had neither this nor the technical excellence Blade has, which is why it sucks so bad. Blade reminded me of another good vampire movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula, by Francis Ford Coppola. They would make good companion pieces on video.

Slash and burn, 5 January 1999

Halloween H20 doesn't even come close to replicating the magic of the original. Its only value lies in the promise that, due to its ending, there will finally be an end to this dreadful series (excluding the brilliant original, of course). There is a bitter irony in the recent renaissance of horror movies; the phenomenon began because of the success of the two Scream movies, but those same Scream movies, with their post-modern, self-referential comment on horror movies, have made straightforward horror movies obsolete. Yet all we're getting is straightforward slasher-type horror movies. Given Kevin Williamson's virtual monopoly on the recent glut of horror movies, I'm led to think the only reason he's making so many is to give work to a new stable of young hot stars, who will owe their careers to him, thereby giving him control of a great proportion of Hollywood 10-15 years down the road. Hey, there's a good idea for a horror movie! Remember, you heard it here first.

Halloween H20's plot revolves around the return of Michael Myers, after 20 years! to haunt his sister Laurie Strode, now underground after faking her death and changing her name to Keri Tate. Michael Myers is sure in good shape considering he must be approaching late middle age, he must be an aerobics instructor between periodic forays into knife-wielding madness. The return of Jamie Lee Curtis as a struggling alcoholic, tightly wound, overprotective mother is actually a good idea. She does a good job in her role.

The problem lies on the side of evil. When you look at the first Halloween movie, you will see that Michael Myers is not just a slasher - he represents metaphysical evil. He works like real evil works, ie, he lurks in the background, waiting for his opportunity to pounce on human vulnerabilities and times of weakness. Real tension is built by his omnipotent presence, by real evil, not fake jumps and false starts, like H20 uses all the time. Plus, the movie uses Michael Myers like a regular slasher, but who can't be killed. But he can't be both; he must either be a human being who can be killed, or figurative in a sense, like in the first movie. Hence H20 is contradictory to its own premise, and further hence, loses all real tension. The movie also doesn't spend enough time building to its climatic finale, we're there before things even get started, it seems, so there's no sense of tragedy either. I can only wonder what Wes Craven could do with this material. He's the only one who knows what to do with the horror genre. I would recommend seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street again, and watch for the sense of tragedy. It's there.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Blitzed by Donner again!, 2 January 1999

Lethal Weapon 4 is a definite improvement on the third installment in this formidable franchise, but doesn't capture the magic of the first two films. The reason for this admittedly superficial accomplishment is because ALL action movies live and die by their villains, and LW4 offers a thrilling villain by the name of Jet Li, a martial arts expert out of Hong Kong. His presence immediately corkscrews the fear and loathing needed to really hate the bad guys, seeing as how, you know, its so hard to tell them apart from the good guys.

The plot involves Asian ganglords who illegally import slave labor, are forging Chinese banknotes to buy back members of an Asian triad, yada yada yada, the plot is barely coherent and mostly unnecessary in a movie like this anyways. It's always been style over substance in this series, and by this point director Richard Donner (who's done all four pictures), could do this in his sleep. The secret to this series' longevity is the amazing repoire between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, who have created one of the most dynamic cop pairings ever. Their incessant banter has the feel of genuine friendship and spontaneity - you can't tell me its all from the script. These characters are so woven into their being they don't even need to slip into them, they ARE them, and that ease of embellishment creates an audience empathy no script could ever do.

Also aiding the effort is the return of Joe Pesci as Leo, Rene Russo as Gibson's love interest, plus a new member, Chris Rock, as another detective whose name Riggs and Murtaugh can never remember, and who is bound to have a complicated relationship with Murtaugh. There is enough human interest in this movie to flesh out these characters, along with the usual spectacular chase sequences and fights. The movie is funny, silly, and ridiculous, but if you don't mind being entertained on a strictly superficial level, you'll enjoy Letal Weapon 4.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Skip this school lesson!, 31 December 1998

The Faculty is a retread of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers; or to be more specific, it's a combination of The Breakfast Club and The Thing (1982). To its only credit, at least it explicitly acknowledges this. Hollywood's stupidity never ceases to amaze me; the whole reason horror movies died out in the first place was because of exploitative, unimaginative, money-grabbing movies like this one.

Here is its fundamental problem. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers' central idea is the sanctity of the individual over repression and conformity (written and made in the '50's, read American democracy over Soviet totalitarianism). Freedom beats central planning and control. Good idea. Except by 1998, this idea is hardly fresh. It needs to be tweaked. So The Faculty should have gone one of two ways - either satire, or ultra-serious, into tragedy. Instead, it plays like a straightforward action movie, with all the requisite cliches. Not only is this boring, its directed in a pedestrian way by Robert Rodriguez, who has done nothing of worth since El Mariachi. Kevin Williamson should also be ashamed, maybe Dawson's Creek is taking up too much of his time. Avoid this stinker.

Dreamworks does not equal spiritual works, 31 December 1998

The Prince of Egypt is brilliantly animated, but it will be very difficult for Dreamworks to sell a cartoon for adults in an already overcrowded animated movie market. It is a rare animated movie that appeals both to kids and adults, but The Prince of Egypt, by sticking relatively faithfully to the biblical story on which it is based, doesn't even try. It's a movie for adults. No singing camels, no cute furry creatures, no Robin Williams. And Pharaoh thought the plagues were rough.

I like and recommend this movie; four scenes in particular stick out in my mind. The opening 8-minute song sequence, a brilliant hieroglyphic montage detailing the Egyptian genocide of Israelite children, the 10 plague sequence, and of course the parting of the Red Sea are all superb. But the movie suffers from the conundrum all biblically based movies do. The Bible is first and foremost a spiritual document; moralizing is its whole point. Film is essentially a visual/ sensual medium. Nary the twain shall meet, Ingmar Bergman movies excepted. So to make The Prince of Egypt entertaining, its makers have emphasized the Moses/Pharoah conflict, turning it into a brotherly and familial battle. No matter its attention to details, this is essentially to miss the point.

The movie also drags in the middle because it spends a lot of time with Moses in Midian, where he spent 40 yrs. after killing the Egyptian. The movie spends more time there than the Bible does, so it's unnecessary. Personally, I think the movie should have emphasized the repression and then freedom of the Israelite nation as a whole more, the central conflict revolving around culture and not family. One critic rightly said that this movie, in posterity, is likely to be admired more than loved.

Don't squish this bug!, 15 December 1998

It is truly a sad state of affairs in the entertainment industry when the best TV shows and movies are if not animated then at least have the characteristics of cartoons (see The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Buffy, Antz, Mulan...). A Bug's Life is another excellent addition to this unique canon. It is made by Pixar, the company that made the even better Toy Story a couple of years ago. This film rides that finicky edge between appealing to kids and adults alike, a task notoriously difficult to accomplish. A Bug's Life showcases brilliant computer animation with a time-tested Seven Samurai story - young man must leave home to redeem himself, brings back friends, becomes a hero and changes the community for the better. Classic. Adults, don't be afraid to go see this movie. And stick around for the end of the credits; it's worth it.

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