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Mystery, Alaska (1999)
It's no MYSTERY
Just in time for the start of the hockey season, MYSTERY, ALASKA comes along with it's tale of small town hockey with big city dreams. Directed by AUSTIN POWERS 1&2's Jay Roach and written by TV kingpin David E Kelley, ALASKA is just the type of film you might expect these two to make without any of the people and ideas involved that made their respected earlier works so memorable. While not a terrible film, MYSTERY is often lacking in so many areas and ideas, it's hard to love it.
Taking place in the small icy town of Mystery, the story concerns a commonwealth who's main concerns are knit caps and who will play in the community's weekly Saturday hockey game. A former resident(THE SIMPSONS's Hank Azaria), who has moved to New York and become a Sports Illustrated reporter, returns with news that the New York Rangers hockey team is coming to Mystery to play the local boys in a nationally broadcast event. Elated by the prospect of notoriety yet wary of the affect the publicity will have on the small community, the town sheriff (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL's Russell Crowe) - a former player himself, and the town judge (Burt Reynolds) join forces to whip the team into shape for the big game.
This being Mr. Kelley's second produced screenplay in three months, MYSTERY, ALASKA suffers from a bizarre comparison to the earlier script LAKE PLACID. While Kelley has a knack for characterization and tone, both scripts fall dangerously close to condescension and plagiarism. Anybody who saw the mildly amusing PLACID will recall Betty White's cringe inducing, profanity-laden dialog. In MYSTERY, we have another scene of an old woman cursing, adding to that a moment where a small child uses the F-word. Obviously, these moments are there to get a laugh. They don't, only coming off as desperate attempts to charm and shock when nothing else works. And as with PLACID, MYSTERY spends an inordinately amount of time on giving each and every character a backstory of somesorts. In PLACID it helped to fill an already skimpy 80 minute running time. In MYSTERY, it pushes the lethargic story to the 120 minute range. If it ain't SLAP SHOT, then I don't need a two hour hockey film. The endless story spiral is tiring and unneeded in both films. MYSTERY even has the gall to end the picture with big things happening to two characters we've barely met. It's hard to get excited when your third cousin gets a promotion, and it's even harder to achieve cinematic goosebumps over characters whom you couldn't even recall names for.
With Jay Roach, it's now clear who really makes the AUSTIN POWERS films so enjoyable, Mike Myers. The unpredictable nature of those successful comedies are long gone in MYSTERY. Working with a talented cast of unrecognized stars (Crowe, Azaria, Reynolds, Mary McCormack, Lolita Davidovich, and Colm Meaney ) and the setting of Alaska, Roach still manages to create a vastly uninteresting film. Flat and without vitality, it's shocking considering the film uses and abuses the same sports film clichés that have worked on me time and again. Roach doesn't seem to have a clue what to do with this film except keep his head down and stick to the script.
I have a deep affection for snow movies (FARGO, the recent JACK FROST, hell even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) and Roach blows the cold weather setting with dismal and distancing cinematography. Shooting in a stark white environment and then dressing your actors in white outfits probably wasn't the best aesthetic choice Roach could have made. He also cannot seem to get an idea how to shoot the hockey scenes. With frenetic editing and bad camera angles, MYSTERY earns it's name just for trying to figure out who has the puck. Even last minute cameos by Mike Myers (who easily contributes the film's only funny line) and Little Richard cannot save MYSTERY from failing.
It's no secret that the film is formulaic. Released by Disney, MYSTERY often feels like a big bad adult version of THE MIGHTY DUCKS. Boiling it down, these types of films can only end two different ways. Either the team wins the big game or they don't. I was hoping Roach and Kelley could come up with something inventive for a climax, but they don't even bother. It's all one big audience pleasing film that forgot to please the audience.
I really wanted to get into the spirit of MYSTERY, ALASKA, but the filmmakers kept me away. Roach can go back to the psychedelic world in the colorful AUSTIN POWERS films, and Kelley can continue writing heady stuff for THE PRACTICE and the other one million shows he has created. Both men obviously have talent, but this film doesn't help that argument. Coming so soon after John Sayles's thought provoking and decidedly more entertaining Alaska odyssey LIMBO, MYSTERY, ALASKA seems like a slapshot across the face.----------------- 3
Double Jeopardy (1999)
What is : Good
Elizabeth Parsons(Ashley Judd) lives the perfect life. Her husband (Bruce Greenwood "The Sweet Hereafter") is a successful businessman, she has a precocious four year-old boy, and her child's nanny is a caring, loving woman who places the child's needs before hers. Out on a weekend retreat in a boat on a nearby lake, Elizabeth wakes up one quiet night covered in blood, with footsteps leading outside to the water. Her husband is missing and Elizabeth is suspect number one. Sent to jail for the murder of her husband, Elizabeth pleads her innocence and becomes increasingly aware that she might have been framed. Upon parole six years later, Elizabeth begins to track down the suspects who might be able to explain what happened on the boat that night and why she cannot find her son. In pursuit of her is a crusty old parole office (Tommy Lee Jones) who also becomes aware that Elizabeth just might be telling the truth about her innocence.
Directed by noted filmmaker Bruce Beresford, it should be established that even this man has a spotted record. For every brilliant "Driving Miss Daisy", Mr. Beresford has made a "Silent Fall" to bring his ego back into check. He can be a powerfully manipulative director, and as junkily tangy as "Double Jeopardy" is, it's also a return to form for the director after past failures.
You can think of this film as "Fugitive" lite. A thriller who's conventions are nothing new, but approached with a freshness and grace that many other contemporary films cannot seem to muster. Shot with gorgeous widescreen luster and written with some cleverness by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, "Jeopardy" is the kind of autumn diversion that makes moviegoing so much fun. You can't really tell what's going to happen next, but you know exactly where you're headed.
The screenplay by Douglas and Weisberg gives star Ashley Judd exactly what she needs right now. One of the more naturally gifted performers in her age bracket, Ms. Judd fits perfectly in the role of convicted murder Elizabeth. It would be hard to top her career defining performance in "Ruby In Paradise", and lord only knows she's been floundering ever since. "Jeopardy" puts Judd front and center, right where she belongs. Granted, the film does feature some awfully abrupt plotlines. A small one involving Elizabeth never really fighting the charge of murder, and her subsequent time in jail are handled rather poorly, as if the filmmakers wanted to get going right away, liberally tossing aside narrative to get there. It's to Judd's credit that this familiar material works at all. She's a fine actress, and the right role will make her a superstar.
With Tommy Lee Jones, the appearance in this picture is a bit dumbfounding. Quite literally the same Sam Gerard role he played in "The Fugitive" and the spin-off "U.S. Marshals". Jones seems to be slumming for a paycheck in "Jeopardy". I'm at a blank to describe any other reason to why Jones would appear in such a role. He's a unique actor with such a loyal fan base, I can only imagine a nation of fans feeling bored by the actor's work here. This isn't his finest moment.
Besides the obvious "Fugitive" parallels, "Jeopardy" also features a very specific nod to George Sluizer's "The Vanishing". Anybody who saw that film will easily recall the horrific resolution to the picture. While "Jeopardy" doesn't end anywhere near as downbeat as Sluizer's classic, one scene involving a coffin and a familiar camera move will surely drive the audience wild with claustrophobia. It's tough to tell if it's homage or stealing. Either way, it's that kind of moxie that makes "Jeopardy" rise above the conventions and remain a satisfying movie.
Paramount Pictures seems to be the only studio in town to have an incredible knack for churning out decent to great adult-themed fare ("Kiss The Girls", "Payback", "Simple Plan") for the off weekends of the year. "Double Jeopardy" should be yet another mid-priced success story for them. A reasonably competent thriller with a good cast, a watertight script, and a director with a definite affinity for the conventions of the genre. You cannot ask for much more than that.----------- 8/10
The Sixth Sense (1999)
One Willis away from greatness...
"The Sixth Sense"
When Bruce Willis decides to act, it's an important occasion. When slogging through misfires like "Mercury Rising" and pure junk like "Armageddon", Willis never gets a chance to show the more dramatic side to his personality. "Sixth Sense" is the first product of the new Willis-no-guns philosophy that Bruce recently has made public. While it aspires to be "The Exorcist" for 1999, "Sixth Sense" can only muster the atmosphere of an off episode of "X-Files". A downright incomprehensible thriller that is too concerned with mood to care about the laughable story.
The real star of the picture is young Haley Joel Osmet (the easy bio is to say Forrest Jr. in "Forrest Gump"). He plays a young boy named Cole who has the ability to see the dead. The life-challenged repeatedly harass and torture him to a point when the entire world the surrounds Cole views him as a freak. While his mother (gifted Toni Collett) cannot understand the secrets Cole keeps, a child psychiatrist (Willis) finds himself drawn to help the young child. The two set out to crack the mystery of why Cole is the chosen one.
Written and directed by first-timer M. Night Shyamalan, the film has all the trappings of a debut movie. It's careful with every detail, visually flat, and has trouble sustaining interest throughout. What the film does just right is creating some creepy moments. Moments that could have forced the film to take a more disturbing note, thereby making the movie memorable. What Shyamalan does is punctuate each heightened situation with a orchestral bang or any other Dolby scare tactic used by every modern film to grab a scare. I keep wondering why directors do this. Sure, it gets a jolt out of the audience, but it's an easy one that isn't earned. A real horror film shouldn't have to lower itself to get a fright out of the audience. In the end, "Dolby scares" do more harm than good. "Sixth Sense" had the goods to really disrupt the audience, instead it hits all the same notes.
Bruce Willis swearing off action films might be the worst mistake Willis has made. His best work has been in this genre (the "Die Hard" series) and giving it up leaves him with a plethora of father and psychiatrist roles to play for the rest of his career. We meet a kinder, gentler Willis in "Sixth Sense". It's a performance that isn't among the actor's best, yet is far from an embarrassment. Willis plays his character rather muted, never once opening up for the big emotions. You could say that was his character, but I suggest that Willis just doesn't know how to play anyone who doesn't have an urgent situation to take care of. I love Willis, but "Sixth Sense" doesn't require much from the actor except pursed lips and a really obnoxious hairpiece. Ten year old Haley Joel Osment, on the other hand, has a remarkable depth and range for a child his age. It is his acting that grounds "Sense" emotionally. I enjoyed his work here very much, and a simple scene of mother and son bonding in a shopping cart clearly showed the chemistry Osment shared with on-screen mom Collett.
A victim of crass Disney mismarketing, "Sixth Sense" isn't really much more than a light thriller with demonic overtones. Shyamalan's script often goes on wild tangents. Scenes with Willis and his wife (shockingly unused Olivia Williams, seen last in "Rushmore") that are supposed to pay off at the end of the picture are left wide open for questions dealing with simple logic. Another moment in which Osment helps a little dead girl to justice seems from a different movie. The entire film appears to make little sense, yet to question what you're watching is obviously not the point. Shamalyan's script is also without dialog, just characters delivering speeches to each other. It's all tiring after an hour or so.
Like this summer's "Arlington Road", the entire film hinges on a last minute plot twist. A twist that is supposed to knock you off your feet. While I was surprised by the ending, it's such an illogical and implausible plot turn that it's hard not to laugh at it. Coming out of the film I was disappointed in the PG-13 "Sense". The next film to try this plot (Scorsese's next, "Bringing Out The Dead", features a similar idea) should just try to take the material more seriously, give it a chance to creep us out instead of forcing it. "Sixth Sense" is just another forgettable thriller.---------- 3
The Iron Giant (1999)
Disney can bite me
"The Iron Giant"
"Tarzan" brought Disney animation back to working order this summer with it's rich animation, terrific narrative songs, and a specific attention to what made the previous Disney blunders fail both critically and financially. "Tarzan" still played by the tired Disney rules, but they are learning. With Warner Brothers animation, they seem to be taking more risks with their own product. From the cross-promotion antics of the lively "Space Jam" to the noble failure of "Quest For Camelot", The WB has been fighting mightily to grab the animation crown of recognition that sits rusted on top of mount Disney. With "Iron Giant", Bugs and company jump miles ahead of any cartoon competition (except for the "South Park" feature) to create a timeless, and nearly flawless, animated feature.
You just know you're in good hands when director Brad Bird's past credits include a stint as a writer-director on the genius animated show "The Simpsons". That show often goes out of it's way to parody Disney animation and others of it's ilk. Bird knows exactly what trappings to avoid and what emotional buttons to push. It is this knowledge in the end that makes "Giant" so effective.
The story, based on a children's novel entitled "The Iron Man", is set in 1957, just as the cold war was getting warm. Hogarth Hughes is a precocious 10 year-old boy with big dreams trapped in a paranoid society in deep fear of the Red Menace. His single mother (voiced with honey by Jennifer Aniston, who's name is misspelled in the end credits) works long hours to pay the bills, and Hogarth is often left alone and lonely. When an iron robot crash lands on Earth one stormy night, Hogarth discovers the Giant and quickly befriends the dazed and confused robot. Soon after, a government agent (another sneaky Christopher McDonald acting job) learns of the Giant's appearance and sets out to destroy the Giant without ever truly understanding that the robot means no harm.
One of the first things that director Bird gets just perfectly is the tone and color of 1950's America. Now, we've seen this period time and again in movies, just not this accurate. The threat of Russian invasion hangs in the air like an old sock. The kids watch "duck and cover" reels in school. The government, having been burned by Sputnik, experiences the itchiest trigger finger know to man. All the "Leave It To Beaver" type material is represented in this film as well, but for a movie aimed at 10 year-olds? Warner Brothers and Brad Bird deserve much credit for keeping this cartoon more cerebral than any in recent history. This is one good script and story, told with zest and intelligence.
I also applaud the simple notion of keeping the Giant's origins a mystery. We never know where the Giant came from or what it's purpose in the grand scheme of things inevitably is. With every film wasting time spelling things out for the audience, "Iron Giant" asks you to just use your imagination. What a notion.
Using period pastels and detailed architecture, it is the look of this animated feature that truly thrilled me. So used to current Disney animation am I that to see a cartoon in the widescreen format literally makes me weep (even if it ends up being the lame Super 35 format). "Giant" easily is the best looking cartoon to come around in decades. It looks like they spent 3 years on each shot. Bird and crew create a unique looking film that seems to be born of the comics and the animation itself of the day. With five o'clock shadows on the men, deliriously wrinkled faces of the aged, and the scary waistlines of the women, "Giant" is spot-on with it's drawings. I could watch the film time and again just for the animation. It makes up for some iffy drama that occupies the film's 2nd act.
To see a film like "Inspector Gadget", with it's relentless delivery and shameless corporate plugs(I know "Giant" will have a merchandising landslide, but the film never feels like a 90 minute toy commercial), make a killing at the box office, it's imperative that a film like "Iron Giant" be known. We need more story-centric cartoons like this. I'm embarrassed to admit that I felt an outpouring of emotion at the end of the film. It's rare to get an animated feature that engages the crowd with lovable characters without being so calculated. It's even more rare to get an animated film that has no songs to drown the narrative. "Iron Giant" is told clean and true. The bittersweet climax (reminiscent of the traumatizing "Fox And The Hound") left me thrilled with "Iron Giant" even more. This is one good animated film that should finally put Warner Brothers on the map. I strongly recommend it. --------------- 9/10
Detroit Rock City (1999)
Calling Dr. Love
"Detroit Rock City"
Darth Maul, Austin Powers, Tarzan, John Travolta, Julia Roberts, Cartman, James West, and killer sharks... What else would summer 1999 require? KISS. That's what we need. With all the teenager movies stinking up the multiplexes recently, the only relief is a film featuring the Knights In Satan's Service. Recalling "Dazed And Confused" and channeling "Rock N' Roll High School", "Detroit Rock City" is a heaping portion of good fun. Filled to the brim with energy and acted by a cast of clever actors who probably can't even shave yet, this new music-packed comedy might just be what the doctor (Dr. Love, that is) ordered.
KISS fans might not be too happy to hear that the band isn't in the film for more than 5 minutes. Director Adam Rifkin ("The Chase" and the pathetically forced "Dark Backward") and writer Carl V. Dupre have made a film not about KISS, but about four teenagers from 1978 Cleveland who drive to Detroit to see the band in concert. Everything from religiously fanatic mothers (The great Lin Shaye), to money-stealing bullies, and even some Disco lowlifes try to stop our heroes as they trek to see the world's greatest band. Once in Detroit, the friends split up to find opportunities to scam their way into the show. It is also in Detroit where each teen learns a very important lesson about life, and just how much KISS rocks.
Leading the group is Edward Furlong. Last seen in John Waters's "Pecker", Furlong has opened up greatly in the past couple of films. In "Detroit", Furlong gives his best performance to date. I've never seen him so loose on-screen before. Working with James DeBello, Giuseppe Andrews, and probably the most expressive teenage actor working today, Sam Huntington, they each deliver just the right amount of teenage apathy, yet make each one of their characters endearing to the audience. It's enormous fun to watch them on-screen together. You don't come around such a young cast that works so well together too often. Other players include the eternal vamp Shannon Tweed, Natasha Lyonne("Slums Of Beverly Hills") in yet another role that cannot seem to tap into her talents as much as I would like to see, and even a girl fittingly named Beth played by the wonderful Melanie Lynskey("Heavenly Creatures"),
It's quite obvious from the brilliant opening credits that Director Rifkin is out to have some fun. He brings back the 1970's with wonderful widescreen lensing, a dab of split-screen, and a soundtrack crammed with classic rock hits. One after another, the music fills each scene with such vibrant energy. After getting so used to the pre-packaged soundtracks that frequently don't have anything to do with the movies that feature them, it's refreshing to see film and sound live in holy matrimony for once.
The camera swings and moves with alarming speed. The colors pop and squeak. The era is evoked gently and without(much) sarcasm. "Detroit Rock City" is one of the few films that seems to be the product of genuine love for the era and the music. It's a bright film with an enormous amount of good will. Whatever Rifkin has forced upon us before has now been forgotten.
If I had to make once complaint about "Detroit", it's the typical use of drama to justify the movie. You've seen it time and again, the film you love crashing to a halt so the lead character can make some death-to-the-ears speech about freedom, love, or any other mundane belief. It never ceases to stop any film, and it brings the kinetic "Detroit" to it's knees for about 5 minutes. The picture is bright enough to not have to include any dramatic weight whatsoever. It's seems like a screenplay conceit, and probably is. Yet another film that's too self-conscious to really kick back and fire on all cylinders.
New Line cut a great trailer for this film. The "Mad" magazine-style poster was also a genius choice. "Detroit Rock City" is silly and sometimes childish, but it never stoops to the constipated laughs of "American Pie" or the plain ugliness of other similar "boy" intensive teenage comedies. "Detroit" is often sharp, always silly, slightly tasteless, but a seriously rocking late summer film that makes up for the usual garbage that litters August. You wanted the best, you got the best.--------- 9/10
Mystery Men (1999)
It's no "Mystery"
When "Mystery Men" was announced for production last year, my heart went sailing into the stars. It's a wonderful thing when Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller decide to collaborate, it's even better when they can find a solid cast to back them up. After detailed reports from the set, two lackluster trailers, and the hideous one-sheet, "Mystery Men" finally slumps into theaters. Universal decided to hose down my fanaticism with the worst ad campaign of the year. It's rare to come across a 70 million dollar film that the studio doesn't have a clue how to market. This is the first of many problems with "Mystery Men".
On to the production...
The cast list is impressive: Hank Azaria (one of "The Simpsons" brilliant voices), former Pee-Wee Paul Reubens, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Stiller and Garofalo, Wes Studi ("Last Of The Mohicans"), Kel Mitchell (Nickelodeon's "Kenan And Kel"), and personal faves Eddie Izzard ("Velvet Goldmine") and Lena Olin ("Romeo Is Bleeding"). Not much can go wrong with this kind of talent. I guess you can never underestimate the power of the first-time director. Kinka Usher come to us from the world of commercials and music videos, doesn't that make you shudder? Has anybody of worth come out of that background? Maybe David Fincher, but Mr. Usher only knows two things in "Mystery Men": low angels and the overuse of a fish-eye lens. Almost every shot in the film alternates between the two choices. While "Mystery" has all the trappings of a rich comic book inspired hit, Usher buries the fun under two layers of clamor and indulgence. While they do have experience and a certain visual gumption, video helmers are slowly and effectively killing modern cinema.
Ben Stiller stars as Mr. Furious, or Roy to his friends. He leads a ragtag group of low-rent superheros with powers not many would consider super. The Blue Raja (Azaria, in one of the film's inspired comic performances) hurls forks and spoons with a English accent. The Shoveler (Macy) quickly dispatches his enemies with the blunt end of a digging tool. The Spleen (Reubens, in the other great acting job) uses his flatulence to bring down evil. It's The Bowler (Garofalo) who provides the best weapon, the skull of her deceased father encased in a golden bowling ball. The group is called into action when resident "Superman" style hero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, not as funny as he should be) comes under the evil clutches of supervillain Cassanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). His intent? To take over Champion City with the help of Mini-Me and Austin's mojo... Oh, wait. I'm getting my parodies mixed up. He's up to something, maybe you can figure it out better than I could.
All knocks aside, "Mystery Men" has it's moments. When the team is finally realized and sets out to fight evil, the film becomes this kinetic ride with lots of laughs and a great sense of parody. Like I said, I'm a sucker for the genius of Stiller and Garofalo. Kinka Usher ends these moments too quickly with endless scenes of preparation and little scenes developing the Cassanova character. I liked Rush quite a bit, anything but to see him in tights and spouting Elizabethan dialog, but cohort in crime Olin barely has any dialog, a crying shame. Usher can't seem to marry the story to the fun. "Mystery" is one of those films that's too interested in it's presentation to care much about story or keeping the silly level up. Every penny is up on-screen (especially in shots when cars drive through the same set about 3 times), but the computer effects look community-college level. Shocking in this day and age when anything is possible.
The climax of the film is another disappointment. Director Usher loses control of the film and it hurdles into an orgy of noise and effects. With a nearly 120 minute running time, "Men" beats you senseless in it's final 25 minutes. The narrative breaks down and you find yourself covering your ears and praying the action will take a break. Save for one hilarious "Six Million Dollar Man" gag, the entire climax is a waste of time and money. Keeping the budget lower might have forced Usher to use his brains to end the film. Instead we get his short-attention span.
I came out sorta liking "Mystery Men", but I'm having trouble remembering the good parts. They had a solid in-jokey script to work with, an amazing cast that will not come around again (unless this does well), and a multi-million dollar palette from which to create a new comic book environment. I can't entirely recommend "Mystery Men", but I can say that the potential is there. That's more than most films have.----------- 5/10
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Not that "Deep", Just fun
"Deep Blue Sea"
With "Die Hard 2", "Cliffhanger", the misunderstood "Cutthroat Island", the underrated "Long Kiss Goodnight" and guilty pleasure (but pretty damn good) "Adventures Of Ford Fairlane", Renny Harlin has proven himself time and again as one of the most visually competent action directors around. I've always stood behind his work, I sincerely love most of his movies. With "Deep Blue Sea", Harlin is in the midst of trying to keep his career going due to the low box office take of his previous films. The result is a movie that's on autopilot. An attempt to reclaim the respect of the studios and the audience with a slam-bang summer film that gets the job done easily, you just won't respect it in the morning.
Maybe the largest problem in "Deep Blue" is the casting. Saffron Burrows and Thomas Jane lead the cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J, and Michael Rapaport. Both Burrows and Jane give what can only be described as seriously lacking performances. As the members of a science and research team in a state-of-the-art ocean facility off the coast of Baja, Mexico, the crew is in the midst of a study on sharks. The sharks hold the key to a possible cure for Alzheimer's disease and other brain dysfunctions(explained more thoroughly in the trailer for the film than in the actual film). The scientists have enlarged the brain of the beasts, making them smarter and faster. When a corporate executive (Jackson) arrives for a tour of the facility, the sharks begin an uprising that threatens the crew's very existence. Out in the middle of nowhere, the team tries to survive both the sharks and the sinking structure.
Saffron Burrows is just the wrong choice for the lead scientist role. Her British monotone ruined a bad film ("Wing Commander") and brought down a good one ("The Loss Of Sexual Innocence"). I don't believe she has that much talent besides her beauty, and her lethargic presence here directly conflicts with the high-octane action that surrounds her. Thomas Jane on the other hand, was good in the role of Dirk Diggler's drug-dealing friend in "Boogie Nights". He seemed more alive in 30 minutes of screen time in that film than all 95 minutes of "Deep Blue Sea". I'm a bit surprised that nobody mentioned the lack of enthusiasm during filming. For the lead role, the film needed someone who can burst off the screen with fury and charm. Jane has neither. He leaves the film all wet.
Saying that "Deep Blue Sea" needed better acting might be stretching it a bit. This is a action film with plenty of thrills and many explosions. You cannot expect Shakespeare when you buy a ticket to this. Still, the script credited to three writers is very weak(I assume large parts of the story were cut for time) and the score by Trevor Rabin is the blandest, most perfunctory music to hit the ears in a long time. Hopes were really high for this, but all the bad parts add up quickly.
Harlin's specialty is the action sequence. He's one of the few directors left who knows how to squeeze the audience just right. "Deep Blue" is filled with wonderful suspense sequences and a genuine amount of anxiety. The computer-generated sharks move with alarming speed and dexterity. They keep the patrons on their toes. I cannot remember the last time I heard an audience scream with fear. Harlin milks every moment for the most thrills. I was very tense throughout the film. Rare for a guy as jaded as me.
The comparison to "Jaws" is very unfortunate. Just because the film features sharks doesn't immediately suggest a "Jaws" ripoff. We have had about 10 high school films with interchangeable plots and identical climaxes, yet nobody bats an eye over that. "Deep Blue Sea" stands alone with it's rousing thrills and deeply undernourished script. "Jaws" it ain't.
It's hot and the summer is about 3/4 of the way through. Escapism with "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Blair Witch Project" is impossible. "Deep Blue Sea" feeds the good old need of action, action, and more action. It's summer entertainment in the highest order, and damn it, the thing works. Hopefully Harlin can rebound in the future with better material. For now, this is the best source of thrills for the summer. ---------- 7
Inspector Gadget (1999)
Go, Go, Gadget Crapfest!
Nothing brings about sweaty palms quite like a Disney live action movie event. This time the Mouse has a beloved 80's cartoon to work with and a huge effects budget to bring it to life. I really was hoping for something good, but I knew in the corners of my mind that Disney just can't pull this type of film off anymore. With Walt gone, all this material means to the company is Happy Meals and video sales. "Gadget" is an outrage of giant magnitude. The latest in a string of Disney live action family films with no class and no respect to the viewer.
If anything is inspired about "Inspector", it might be the casting of Matthew Broderick as our multi-gadgeted hero. Broderick still has the right amount of fresh faced charm and honest personality for the role. I doubt anybody else could have been a better choice to play the character, but then again I can't see anyone else taking the part after reading the script. The plot is basic, evil Claw(Rupert Everett in an embarrassing performance) vs. good Gadget. They also take the time to show us the origins of the characters, something the show never did. I would like to know why, in each of these cartoon or comic based movies, do we need to show the character foundations. "Gadget" would have been a lot more satisfying if they just dropped us in on the action and skipped the needless back story.
Distressing, almost hilariously so, is the use of Gadget's "thought balloons" for three key moments. It's no secret that this film tested very poorly and was continuously edited down to the current bare bones running time of 80 minutes. What was deleted was basically every inch of narrative(check out the Evil Joely Fisher, in purple latex, that comes out of nowhere and then leaves even quicker) and character, leaving only the action and more action aspects of the movie intact. I submit that this might be the first film that could legally be diagnosed with ADD. But back to the thought balloons... Some scenes that were cut are back in the film in spilt-second memories that Gadget has about plotlines that were excised. Each contain effects that I know Disney ordered back in due to the high cost of creating them. In the middle of all the noise we get Gadget remembering more noise. It's weird to describe it, it's even weirder to see it.
Since this is Disney flick, the filmmakers also include heaps of product placement. To those who found the gratuitous "Austin Powers 2" beer plug distasteful should stay away from the "Gadget" McDonalds, Skittles, Coke products, Tommy clothes(see below), and most blatantly, the Yahoo Internet corporation plugs. I've come to expect this behavior, but the discretion in which the placements are being presented is getting faint.
With the use of a huge budget the film does have the unique virtue of fully fleshing out the Inspector's gadgets. I'm trying hard not to be a sour puss, so I will heartily admit that the special effects are great. They colorfully display Gadget's trinkets more realistically than I could have imagined. The filmmakers deserve credit for the creation, but they ruin it with Gadget constantly in the midst of mayhem. There should've been more opportunities for Gadget to breathe, for the audience to get used to madness. No such luck. "Gadget" runs at full steam from opening credits to closing credits.
Almost sacrilegiously, the filmmakers have also decided to tamper with the essence of "Gadget". Niece Penny (sharply played by Michelle Tractenberg, in full Tommy Hillfiger gear) and canine Brain were, in the cartoon, the real reason Gadget got out of trouble. The real inspectors behind the Gadget. In this film, the two are quickly introduced and then quickly forgotten. The film relies on Gadget alone to solve the crime. He bumbles has way across town while Brain and Penny sit and watch. By taking out the essential charm, why did they even bother to make the film? Oh yeah, to sell toys.
"Inspector Gadget" is the bain of current children's cinema. The nation complains about violence and the impact on children, all the while blaming movies aimed at adults. The real enemy are these frenetic kid's films with nothing redemptive about them. "Gadget" is a one-note weapon of mass distraction aimed at kids all over the country. Take my advice and go, go, go to a different movie.--------- 1
Jakob the Liar (1999)
The whole truth...
"Jakob The Liar"
Coming so soon after Roberto Benigni's "Life Of Beautiful", I'm not sure the cinematic world can bear another Holocaust fable. Benigni's film was a wonderful and tender tale of a father's love for his son during that horrific period in history. It treated the Jewish Holocaust with respect, yet retained a light comedic tone. It's a balance that very difficult to pull off. "Jakob The Liar" is similar in many ways. Filmed in 1997, the movie is finally being released. It's timing couldn't be worse, only because this new film cannot hold a candle to Benigni's triumph.
Robin Williams stars as Jakob, a lonely widower stuck in a Jewish Ghetto in 1945. Trying to maintain a life while the horrors of the German atrocities surround him, he survives with the help of his humor and his small circle of friends. When Jakob is stopped past curfew one night, he hears a report on the radio of Russian Forces getting closer to liberating the death camps. Excited at the good news, Jakob reports the intelligence to his friends, suggesting that this information came from a radio he owns. The inhabitants of the ghetto become excited at the news and pressure Jakob for more. Without ever really owning a radio, Jakob begins to falsely create stories to please the ghetto. By doing this, Jakob lifts the morale of the ghetto but also places the entire population in danger from the German army. Also in the mix is a ten year-old girl who has escaped from a train in route to a death camp and has managed to fall into Jakob's care.
Sufficed to say, Robin Williams is coming off his most critically lambasted year. The double punch of the woefully underrated "What Dreams May Come" and the misunderstood "Patch Adams" has set back the actor quite a bit in the eyes of the critical community. With audiences, Williams can do no wrong. Both "Dreams" and "Patch" were extremely successful. They've come to expect the same dramatic yet sillyheart performance from Williams. "Jakob" doesn't ask a lot of Mr. Williams's core audience. I like Robin, but "Jakob" just isn't the role for him. The performance is way too similar to ones that have come before. His pained dramatic look while trying to make the whole world happy is very admirable, but he needs to stop making these movies (Robin Williams and his wife produced this film for their Blue Wolf Productions, so it really is their fault). Mr. Williams is beyond gifted. He has enough range and instincts to soar high in original roles. It's too bad he always stoops to the "Save the world" message films instead of challenging work.
Director Peter Kassovitz makes a strong impression with the look of "Jakob The Liar". The dirty, muddy, run down feel of a Jewish Ghetto towards the end of the war is very palpable in the movie. I cannot recall (even "Schindler's List") a holocaust movie that made you feel like you were part of the experience. It's parts frightening and remarkable. The camera weaves through the work day of the prisoners and you feel like one of them. The supporting cast of great actors like Liev Schreiber, Alan Arkin, and Bob Balaban also contribute to the overall mood with their extremely believable camaraderie.
When "Jakob" begins to break down, the whole film falls apart. The Germans suspect a radio is on the premises and the entire movie suddenly becomes a myriad of clichés. The PG-13 rating is also stretched a bit with graphic scenes of torture and mayhem. "Jakob" was a fine film when the focus was kept small and personal. I didn't need screenwriting 101 to tell me that a tragic climax would make the film more satisfying. It's a crying shame that Williams and Kassovitz needed to drag the audience through the typical dramatic routine, even more depressing since the ending is practically shot for shot the same as "Life Is Beautiful". Keeping the story in check should have been the first priority.
"Jakob The Liar" is the first holocaust film in which I feel the story didn't need to be told. While I can easily recommend the first 70 minutes of the film, the aftertaste suggests that the ending ruined things beyond repair. The holocaust is a delicate thing, and "Jakob" isn't offensive, it's just too late. ------------- 6
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
A Bit Nearsighted
"Eyes Wide Shut"
Unfortunately, I am of the school where Stanley Kubrick is just another director. A man who makes movies like most other filmmakers around. Independent, free do do anything he likes, the 100 take man... What Stanley Kubrick has always represented to me is power and madness. A perfectionist who is beloved for a trait that any kingdom would crumble under. I've spent many years trying to like his work. I feel like an outsider. For his last film "Eyes Wide Shut", I have the opportunity to see one of his pictures in the theater. That's something that has never happened before.
Mr. Kubrick has chosen Tom Cruise to lead us this time. A ferociously gifted actor, he seems the natural choice to play Doctor Bill Harford, a man who's wife(a shockingly capable Nicole Kidman) reveals a secret desire for another man one night whiled stoned on marijuana. In a fit of jealous rage, the Doctor hits the streets of New York in search of his long hidden desires and wishes. What he finds startles him. A world of lust that he never really accepted in his private world. It turns him on and threatens his life at the same time. It's also a world he must confront to understand the bond of his marriage. I can sincerely say that this is Kubrick's most low key film ever.
Being Cruise's story, we see everything from his angle of discovery and delight. I was amused by his scenes with a hooker (Vinessa Shaw) and a flirtatious hotel employee (Alan Cumming). I enjoyed most of the first half of the film. "Sweet", I thought to myself, "I finally like a Stanley Kubrick movie!"
The one thing Kubrick does like no other director is to make his films glide effortlessly. "Eyes Wide Shut" is probably the most well put together movie of the year. The production design is absolutely flawless. Each location that Cruise finds himself in is another chance to glimpse a well thought out world. The use of colors and film grain make a nice addition to the texture of the piece. Kubrick also prefers a stedicam glide through a scene than to cuts. Amen! The actors are better served with one-take shots instead of the usual chop-chop mentality. Technically, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a marvel. The best looking Kubrick film out of the bunch.
It is around the infamous "orgy" scene that the seams start popping out of nowhere. The Doctor finds himself sneaking into a ritualistic orgy complete with high priest and absurdly staged "sex". It's the scene that climaxes the Doctor's story. Trouble is, when you look down at your watch, the film still has an hour to go. The orgy scene kills the movie on two levels. First being that - forgive me - it blows the film's wad. We get a full glimpse at the depravity and gluttony that the movie hinted at before(for the record, the digitally added figures that were added to cover nudity to avoid the NC-17 do hurt the scene greatly). Second thing is, since we have no idea what this orgy is about, it's hard to feel the danger that the Doctor is supposedly in. The movie works overtime to suggest that this moment has changed the Doctor forever. I never felt that. It came off as more of a goof than a life-threatening situation. And some orgy, about 10 people having sex while 400 look on. I've seen more bodies in heat in a July line outside the Old Country Buffet.
Since the film has nowhere to go after this, we get an hour of forced intrigue and bad acting by Sydney Pollack. Now I want to stress that I did understand, get, comprehend "Eyes Wide Shut". It has many layers (the critics keep telling me this), and I'm not a true film lover if I cannot appreciate the film on it's deep emotional levels. But I can't. Kubrick's creation is visually dazzling but is far from pure cinematic brilliance. Other directors could take this material and make the same dead-weight film as well. The only thing that separates this from other movies is all the behind-the-scenes action. If Wes Anderson had his actors do 100 takes of a scene, who cares. But when Kubrick does this, IT'S GENIUS! His films are original. They just aren't all that good.
"Eyes Wide Shut" is a cold, distant movie. A film that many will love, but many more will leave the theater wondering what to think. While with powerful moments, the final product is a very languid piece that will serve as the perfect example to what Stanley Kubrick could do with a million feet of celluloid.------------ 5