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The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
You'll Hate Yourself in the Morning
I laughed all the way through "The Whole Nine Yards," then hated myself the next morning when I realized what an amoral a film it is.
To cite a few examples: One of the main characters commits several murders-including his best friend and a law enforcement officer--yet winds up going free and collecting $9 million to boot. Another character is arrested for a murder she didn't commit. Still another character sleeps with another man's wife, commits fraud and winds up $1 million richer.
If you see the film you'll delight in wonderful performances by Bruce Willis (the most relaxed he's appeared on screen), Matthew Perry (finally-a movie that captures his wit and physical comedy talents), Michael Clarke Duncan and especially Amanda Peet in a star-making role as a killing-for-hire-wannabe.
You'll note the easy relationship among the characters-they actually appear to like each other in real life. (They probably do: Duncan appeared with Willis in "Armageddon," and we're told that Bruce was the reason Duncan got his Academy-nominated role in "The Green Mile." Perry had a cameo in Willis' "Disney's The Kid"). And you'll appreciate the plot twists and director Jonathan Lynn's brisk direction.
You'll just hate yourself in the morning.
Six Days Seven Nights (1998)
When `Six Days Seven Nights' was released in 1998, it was during the time of co-star Anne Heche's celebrated relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. The question was not so much how good the film was, but would the public accept a lesbian playing a romantic interest of Harrison Ford's. The answer was, `no.' The film underperformed at the box office.
And that's a shame, because Heche is terrific. She takes a stereotypical role, that of a New York magazine editor stranded on an island with pilot Ford, and instead of giving us a typical pampered/complaining/fearful woman, gives us someone who is alive, brave and resourceful.
The rest of the film is a throwaway. Ford has played this type of character many times before. A subplot of murderous pirates attacking Ford and Heche belongs in another film, and the mutual attraction of Heche's fiance (played by David Schwimmer with his worst `Friends' mannerisms) and Ford's girlfriend (Jacqueline Obradors) is a waste of time.
China Moon (1994)
Follow the Template
The film classic `Double Indemnity' has become a template for dozens of movies. A woman is involved in an abusive and/or loveless marriage. She meets a man, and they begin to have an affair. She tells him how miserable she is in the marriage, and he agrees to help her murder her husband. The man believes he is skilled enough to cover up the crime. But then the cover-up begins to unravel.
Part of the joy of watching films of this genre is trying to predict how things are going to go wrong, and whether the wife (who almost always stands to inherit a fortune after her husband dies) will eventually betray her lover.
`China Moon' follows this formula except for two deviations. The wife (played by Madeleine Stowe) alone kills the husband (Charles Dance, in another example of a British actor trying to use a Southern accent, and sounding ridiculous). The lover (a detective played by the always good Ed Harris) doesn't kill the husband, but he does agree to cover up the crime. But more importantly there is a plot twist toward the end of the film that is unbelievable and sends the film off in the wrong direction.
The movie would have been better served if it had followed the template and instead played off the a relationship between Harris and his partner, played by Benicio Del Toro. Early in the film the veteran Harris chastises his young partner for not being observant. A better plot line would have been for Del Toro to prove his partner wrong.
The Tragedy of Certainty
Errol Morris' "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." is a documentary about a professional executioner who is so certain about the scientific way he approaches his grim task that he doesn't realize when he is over his head.
If you didn't know ahead of time anything about Leuchter you would think that Morris has chosen to film the story of a man who, because he was seen as being an expert in designing electric chairs, was soon hailed as an expert in all forms of execution. His work in studying gas chambers leads to his downfall-the conclusion that Auschwitz could not have been used to gas Jews to death.
The problem isn't so much Leuchter's ridiculous findings-it was that he was certain he was right, even in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise. As a result, Leuchter loses everything except the undying gratitude of neo-Nazis.
Some reviewers criticize Morris for ridiculing Leuchter. I don't think he does. While I can't imagine Morris having any love for his subject, I think he is more concerned about answering the question, "How could such a rational person go off the deep end?" To that end, he lets the viewer make the call. The result is a fascinating, powerful and disturbing movie.
Reindeer Games (2000)
Recipe for a successful Elmore Leonard book or movie: Quirky characters, shady hero, humor, sudden violence, clever plot twists. See `Out of Sight.' Recipe for an Elmore Leonard clone: All of the above, without the class.
The film ultimately suffers from what Roger Ebert calls the Talking Killer Syndrome. Instead of simply shooting their victims, the killers take time to explain the plot--obviously for the benefit of the audience. An explanation of the last plot twist is done rapidly so that its stupidity doesn't have a chance to set in.
Ben Affleck works hard as Rudy, the movie's main character, but he's too handsome and articulate to be believable as a car thief. He spends most of the movie being beaten, kicked, stuck with darts, shot at-and closing his eyes the numerous times he thinks he's about to be executed. Charlize Theron does better as the complex woman Rudy hitches up with once he gets out of prison. Gary Sinise and James Frain are fine as Theron's `brother' and prison bunk mate, respectively, but Clarence Williams III, Donal Logue, Danny Trejo and Dennis Farina are wasted in other secondary roles.
Veteran actor John Frankenheimer keeps the action moving with his usual straightforward, direction-no special effects but good action sequences. He's just stuck with a ridiculous plot. Skip this film and rent "Out of Sight" instead.
The Third Miracle (1999)
Regaining the Faith
Agnieszka Holland's `The Third Miracle' is similar in many ways to one of its film contemporaries, `Stigmata." Both focus on Catholic priests who check out reports of the supernatural. Both are plagued with doubts about the faith, and as a result drink too much. Their superiors are either corrupt or evil-or both. During the course of their investigations, the priests team up with women who are not believers. They fall in love. At the end the priests and women are somewhat redeemed.
The difference in the films is what the two priests are after. In `Stigmata' it is a force that is killing the woman. In `Third' the priest (played by Ed Harris) investigates the credentials of candidates for sainthood. If he can confirm that the candidate is responsible for three miracles, he can recommend that the person be made a saint.
Harris feels guilty because a recent investigation has led to an entire community losing its faith. As a result, he has become known as `the miracle killer.' But in the course of `The Third Miracle's' plot, which focuses on Harris' investigation of a simple woman in 1979 Chicago, he regains his faith.
Convinced that there have indeed been three miracles, Harris must then argue his case before a church tribunal. A skeptical archbishop who is convinced that such a common American woman should not be granted sainthood opposes him.
The climax of the film is predictable-the average moviegoer should be able to see it soon after the archbishop is introduced. Unfortunately, the movie tacks on an ambiguous ending that leaves us wondering if the priest and woman's redemption aren't the true miracles.
The film raises a final question: Has Ed Harris ever given a bad performance, or even had a bad scene? He is assisted here by two fine other actors, Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl.
Better Off Dead... (1985)
You have to love any director who goes by the name Savage Steve Holland. He's only done a handful of films, but fortunately one of them is `Better Off Dead,' one of the better teenage comedies of the 80s.
What sets `Better Off Dead' apart is its quirkiness. Three examples: The treacherous mountain hero Lane Myer (played by John Cusack) must ski down is named not K-2, but K 1-12. Myer works at a drive-in that sporting the motto, `Everybody Wants Some.' In the middle of a scene two burgers suddenly break out in a rendition of the Van Halen hit by that name. And one of Cusack's many nemeses in the film is an Asian teenager who learned English by watching the Wide World of Sports. So naturally he sounds like Howard Cosell.
The cast is fine, especially Cusack, David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby as his parents, and Curtis Armstrong (in typical slop/whacko fashion) as Cusack's best friend.
The only problem with the film is Cusack's failed attempts at suicide. It's difficult to judge a 1985 film with 2001 sensibilities, but suicide has never been a funny subject, and it's hard to envision Cusack's character being so shaken by being dumped by his girlfriend that he would contemplate taking his own life.
Regardless, the movie is worth a rental.
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
It's the Future, Mr. Bond
With the release of `The World is Not Enough,' the James Bond series approaches 40 years of existence. No one disputes that the series' glory days are over-they have been since the late 1960s. But the series continues to thrive--we are told that only Bond films are guaranteed to make money world wide. But the question remains, what is the future of the series? The chase scenes in the Bond films have been surpassed by other movies. The special effects are good, yet not Matrix-class. And the insistence on keeping the films' sex tame has made that aspect almost quaint today.
Well, if `The World is Not Enough' is the future of Bond films--it's a healthy one. There are several reasons for this:
1. The film has a good director, Michael Apted, who has done `Coal Miner's Daughter' and other critically blessed movies. Recent Bond films have seemed like a series of unconnected chase scenes. In `World,' Apted remains a consistent pace. 2. The plot is easily followed and not as far-fetched as some have been in the past. Bond films usually feature a villain out to take over the world. Bond's foe here is Renard (Robert Caryle), who wants to capture the oil delivery mechanism from the former Soviet Union to the West. Important-yet not apocalyptic. 3. `World' has a wonderful cast. Caryle (even though he is made up to look like Fester Addams) is one of best developed Bond bad guys ever. He is ruthless, but we almost feel sorry for him because he can no longer feel pain (something his lover taunts him about), and is dying. Sophie Marceau is both beautiful and talented as one of Bond's love interests. Robbie Coltrane and Judi Dench are back, as is Desmond Llewelyn as `Q' (although there is poignancy in Llewelyn's departure in the movie-he died after the filming), but he will be replaced adequately by John Cleese. 4. Pierce Brosnan. No one can ever replace the best Bond, Sean Connery, but Brosnan is a strong number two. He is athletic enough to convince us (unlike Roger Moore) that he could escape death on a regular basis. And notice how business-like he is. Sure he has time to bed a few beauties and to crack a few puns, but he seems focused on getting his job done.
Where to improve the series? First, the producers need to stop using starlets (Denise Richards, in this case) who can't act as Bond girls. Marceau shows there are some beautiful, talented women out there. Second, stop the double entendres. They're not funny any more. The last pun in this film is a real groaner. Other than that, the future is bright, Mr. Bond.
Off to a Good Start
There are three rules for movies that are adapted from comics: First, the movie must spend time covering the back story of its characters for newcomers such as I, before it launches into its first adventure. But, secondly, the movie must do this quickly enough that it doesn't turn off long-time fans of the comic, who are likely to be the movie's greatest critics. Thirdly, the movie must serve as a flagship for sequels. That means it has to leave us wanting to know and see more about the characters.
X-Men succeeds all three accounts. Although there are more characters than in most super hero movies, writer-director Bryan Singer and writing partner Tom DeSanto introduce good guys Professor X, Dr. Jean Grey, Cylops, Storm, Rogue and especially Wolverine efficiently and satisfyingly. They do a similarly good job helping us get to know the chief villain Magneto, but less so with the other bad guys. We'd like to know more about Sabretooth, Toad-and particularly Mystique-but, alas, there's not enough time to do so. Finally, the film left me wanting to see to see a sequel-particularly to find out more about Wolverine.
The acting for the most part is good. Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) are both strong presences. Famke Janssen and James Marden are fine as Jean Grey and Cyclops, respectively, but Halle Berry's looks horrible as Storm, and her acting matches her looks. Anna Paquin is nice as Rogue, but we sense we'll see a lot more of her in the future. The breakout star of the movie, however, is Hugh Jackman, as the feral Wolverine.
X-Men, like most comic strips, strives for something deeper than just super heroes doing their thing. The theme of the movie is intolerance. That's evident from the first scene, set in a Nazi concentration camp, to scenes of Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) trying to pass laws requiring mutants to be registered. The movie's point is that, like other humans, there are good and bad mutants.
All in all, not a bad start for what is likely to be a long-living franchise.
`Dick' is a movie that is funnier than its previews would leave you to believe, but not as funny as it could be.
The premise is silly yet appealing. Two 15-year old girls (played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) bungle their way into the White House, talk Richard Nixon into ending the Vietnam War, and then become the mysterious Deep Throat informants who bring down the Nixon administration after the Watergate break-in.
But the girls are not only dumb, they're annoying. And the filmmakers can't decide how to cast the film. Veteran character actor Dan Hedaya turns in a wonderful performance as Nixon--perhaps the most dead-on portrayal of the president we've yet seen (surpassing even Anthony Hopkins' impersonation in Oliver Stone's `Nixon'). The reason is that he plays Nixon relatively straight. We sense Nixon's nastiness, insecurity and vulnerability all at the same time.
The rest of the key roles are played by sketch comedians such as Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as a forever bickering Woodward and Bernstein, Dave Foley as Bob Haldeman, Jim Breur as John Dean and Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy. Unlike Hedaya, they play their roles for laughs, and as a result we never believe that these are the characters they are portraying, as we do with Hedaya.
There are some inspired scenes, however, such as the explanation for the 18-minute gap in the conversation recorded by Nixon secretary Rosemary Woods and the girls being shadowed by a van with the words `Plumbers' on the side. But these are more than offset by the endless `I love Dick' jokes, and other puns involving the phallic name. One of these goes a long way.
The real issue is what is the audience for this film? Only people over 45 years of age remember Watergate, and most of those have moved well beyond that incident. This movie might have been move successful 20 years ago. It isn't now.
Thirteen Days (2000)
Still Tense, Though Knowing
The mark of a good historical movie is that the audience, while knowing how events will turn out, is still caught up in the tension of the moment. That's what happened with `Apollo 13'-we knew the crew was going to arrive home safely, but we still clapped for joy when their capsule re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
`Thirteen Days' tells the story of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and it recreates expertly the fear many of us had at the time (I was a senior in high school) that the United States and Soviet Union were about to start a nuclear war.
Kevin Costner, we are told, passed up the role of John Kennedy to play Kenneth O'Donnell, who according to the film was as close to JFK and Bobby Kennedy as they were to each other. There seems to be a question as to whether O'Donnell's part in the crisis was built up to accommodate Costner, but regardless, the star made the right choice. This is his best role in a long time. He plays O'Donnell as a tough but compassionate political adviser to JFK.
The task of playing JFK falls to Bruce Greenwood, who continues a string of outstanding performances. I wonder if Greenwood is ever going to be recognized as a great actor. He doesn't try to imitate the president, but gives a convincing performance. Steven Culp is also good as RFK, as are a supporting cast headed by Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara, Bill Smitrovich as General Maxwell Taylor, Tim Kelleher as Ted Sorensen and Kevin Conway as the trigger-happy Gen. Curtis LeMay.
Roger Donaldson keeps the film moving-I was shocked to discover that when the film was over it had lasted more than two and a quarter hours. He directed Costner in the successful "No Way Out," suggesting the two ought to continue collaborating.
My only quarrel with the film comes from my memory that a heavily Republican newspaper in my hometown of St. Louis portrayed the missile crisis-at least at the beginning-as a ploy by Kennedy to capture votes for a Democratic congress in the upcoming elections. The film doesn't cover the angle-but that's its only fault.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Some stories are about nice guys without an ounce of talent. `Sweet and Lowdown' is about a jerk with lots of talent, the fictional Emmet Ray (Sean Penn in an Oscar-nominated performance), the second best jazz guitarist in the world during the 1930s.
Another character in the film describes Ray perfectly: `Not only are you vain and egotistical, but you have genuine crudeness.' Ray is obsessed and intimated by the world's greatest guitarist, Django Reinhardt. The thing is, whenever Ray's path crosses with Django's Emmet faints.
`Sweet and Lowdown' gives Allen an opportunity to display his love for jazz, and the film is similar to `Broadway Danny Rose' in that it is told in anecdotes by jazz experts and fans (the final anecdote is told in three different ways, although it's tellers indicate that they're not sure that they're relating anything more than a myth).
Allen boldly makes the Ray one of his least likeable characters. Ray has the possibility of a meaningful relationship with a mute (Samantha Morton in another Oscar-nominated performance), but he dumps her when the idea of commitment creeps into their conversation.
The only false note about the film is that it makes the the case that Ray is passionate about is his music, but he looks anything but passionate when he plays--mellow would be a better description.
This is a good film, but not in the class with some of Allen's classics such as `Annie Hall' and `Hannah and Her Sisters.'
The Minus Man (1999)
Nice Guy/Serial Killer
`The Minus Man' is a well-done variation on the familiar movie theme of the stranger who shows up in town and has a profound impact on the people he comes in contact with. The twist here is that the stranger in town, Van Siegert (Owen Wilson), is a serial killer.
We're not prepared for this when we're first introduced to Vann at a diner where he meets up with an obviously stoned young woman, played surprisingly well by singer Sheryl Crow. He takes her home (she thinks they're going to get high)-and then he kills her. Vann then moves to a small town where he gets a job in a post office (!) and meets a young woman named Ferrin (played by a surprisingly pretty Jeaneane Garofalo) and becomes a border in the home of Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl, a couple who are in denial about what has happened to their daughter.
Soon people begin dying, but no one seems to suspect Vann. After all, he's nice-looking and pleasant, and so unassuming that he can look at an artist's rendering of the killer in a local newspaper and say aloud, `Looks like me.'
The movie never explains why Vann kills or whom he chooses. He is aware of what he is doing, however, and afraid of being caught-throughout the movie he has imaginary dialogs with two law enforcement officers, played by Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert.
Movies such as this rely on sustaining suspense about who the murderer will or won't kill next, and whether he'll get caught. The film, to its credit, doesn't let us down on either account.
Trusting the Director
We tend to trust a filmmaker who has a strong point of view. Many times that trust is misplaced. Oliver Stone created a stir with his `JFK' premise that everyone killed John F. Kennedy EXCEPT Lee Harvey Oswald--until the American public stepped back and realized how much the writer/director had misrepresented history. `Elizabeth' was critically acclaimed until an article in `The Washington Post' showed how historically inaccurate it was. And `Hurricane' was battered-and perhaps star Denzel Washington lost the Academy Award for best actor--when critics began to point out its inaccuracies.
The fact is that few people have the time or knowledge to challenge the accuracy of what's being portrayed on the screen. Such is the case with Steven Soderbergh's `Traffic.' Soderbergh marshals some statistics about how the money spend in transporting drugs far outstrips the amount being spent on stopping the flow of narcotics into this country, and shows the political posturing of the American government and the corruption of the Mexican government. He also does a bit of preaching: A scene in which Michael Douglas and Amy Irving blame each other for their daughter's drug use makes the familiar argument that there are all sorts of narcotics out there. His conclusion is that the situation is continuing to get worse, and the war is unwinnable. Soderbergh may be right about all this-we just have to trust him. But what if things are getting better?
Aside from that caution, this is a good if not film. Soderbergh does several fine things. First of all, his structure involves three separate stories that interlink at points, but not always. Secondly, he does an interesting thing with lighting. He films scenes in Mexico in a washed out tone, creating a feeling of both desolation and dread. Finally, he assembles an outstanding cast. Michael Douglas and real-life wife Catherine Zeta-Jones-though they never appear on screen together-head the list of Academy Award possibles. So does Benicio Del Toro as a decent Mexican cop. His role is almost entirely in "Mexican" Spanish, a dialect he had to learn for the movie. Don Cheadle turns in another strong performance, as does Miguel Ferrer, who might finally gain some recognition from this film as a great character actor.
Soderbergh does trip up at one point. An attempt(s) to take out Ferrer portrays the DEA as being unable to perform the most basic type of security.
My Dog Skip (2000)
Based on a True Story
I have a theory: Any film that begins with the phrase `based on a true story' is saying to us, `If this were a work of fiction, you'd never believe it. So we need to let you know that what we are about to depict-more or less-actually happened.'
`My Dog Skip' begins with such a phrase, and soon you see why. The movie, based on writer Willie Morris' memories of growing up during World War II in Mississippi, portrays a smart little boy who has no friends (except the athlete who lives next story who's about to ship out to Europe). Worse, he is taunted daily by three boys. And his father-who lost a leg in the Spanish Civil War-takes his bitterness out on the boy by being overbearing.
Then the mother-over the father's protestations-gets the boy a dog, and his whole life changes. With Skip at his side Willie suddenly wins over the boys who pick on him, gets his father to warm up-and so on. No doubt this all happened, but the `based on a true story' frame admits that the audience might be winking and saying, `Sure it did. This must have been some dog!"
Anyway, this is a fine family film. The acting by Frankie Munoz (of `Malcolm in the Middle'), Diane Lane and Kevin Bacon (two of the most underrated actors in the industry) and Luke Wilson is good. It's a movie that is worthy of being rented and watched by the whole family.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Cold, not cool
Okay, it seems to be a requirement of remakes that one of the stars of the original has to be be given a bit part. That's the only explanation for Faye Dunaway's appearance as a psychiatrist in this updated version of the 1968 Dunaway-Steve McQueen film. Her scenes with Pierce Brosnan add nothing to the plot of the movie. But Dunaway's cameo just reminds us how cool the original movie was, and how cold this one is.
Dunaway was one of the coolest actresses of the late '60s-late '70s. And McQueen-there was no one cooler than he. He deliberately chose to be cast against type as a sophisticated millionaire in "Crown," and yet we bought it. And the end of the earlier version was way cool.
There's nothing cool about this version. Whatever cool had Brosnan had dissipated after Remington Steele. Russo's cool was used up in "In the Line of Fire" and "Lethal Weapon 3." There is no spark between them in this film, no sense that the two characters really care about each other. And we don't care about either of them-neither of the characters as likeable.
Russo starts out wonderfully as a strong, smart insurance investigator, but by the end of the film she has been reduced to an annoying blubberer. The movie ends on a predictable note.
Go ahead and rent "The Thomas Crown Affair." Just make sure it's the earlier version.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
Just Tell the Story
Oliver Stone refuses to let a good story get in the way of his razzle-dazzle directing technique in `Any Given Sunday.' In chronicling four games late in the season of the fictitious Miami Sharks, he touches on everything he thinks is wrong with pro football: Violence, sex, injuries, drugs, racism, individualism, servitude and the economics that force a city to build a stadium or lose its team. He tells his story through a combination of quick cuts, slow motion, split/screen, music videos-even the interspersing of scenes from `Ben-Hur,' whose star Charlton Heston makes a cameo in this film.
Stone also has a thing for stunt casting. A bit of this, especially in sports films, is okay. And a few of the castings here, such as Lawrence Taylor and Jim Brown, work. But every opposing coach is a former NFL star-Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus, etc.-and Stone doesn't realize their familiar faces only distract viewers and drives home the point that we're not dealing with reality.
Stone casts Al Pacino as Sharks' coach Tony D'Amato. But Pacino continues a habit he has picked up over the years of screaming almost every line. Watch Pacino's understated performances in the first two `Godfather' films, then imagine what it would be like if any older Michael Corleone were coaching the Sharks. Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, James Woods and John McGinley fare better in their roles. And Jamie Foxx shines as the third string quarterback who Pacino must nurture to maturity.
Finally, the movie ends by giving the Shark's Dallas opponents the worse looking football uniforms anyone has ever seen, and with Pacino announcing a decision that catches his team off guard-something that could never happen in the real world.
The best football film ever made was 1979's `North Dallas Forty.' It covered much the same ground as `Any Given Sunday,' and even had its own bit of stunt casting (using current and former NFL stars in some roles). But it didn't let the director's technique get in the way of the story. My advice: Rent that film instead of this one.
Finding Forrester (2000)
Thankfully, Not Bad
The thing about Gus Van Sant's "Finding Forrester isn't that it's a good film-it is-but that it could have been so bad.
The plot covers much as the same ground as Van Sant's hit, "Good Will Hunting," but it looks and feels like a totally different film. It stars Sean Connery in the type of role that makes audiences turn to each other and say, "Isn't it great that he's transcended James Bond to become such a great character actor?" But the director allows Connery's character to be vulnerable and a bit bizarre. Van Sant puts an unknown, Rob Brown, in the key role across from Connery, and coaxes a wonderful performance out of a non-actor. And it ends with a scene reminiscent of "Scent of a Woman," but one not nearly as over the top.
What makes "Finding Forrester" work is Van Sant's visual style. You realize 15 minutes into the film that the director has told you everything you need to know about the world of its main character, Jamal Wallace, played by Brown.
The only problem with the film is casting F. Murray Abraham as Jamal's adversary, an English professor at a private school that Jamal attends. Abraham plays the character so much to type that we can't find an ounce of humanity in him. Better that Van Sant would have cast someone against type, or allowed Abraham to become multi-dimensional.
How's this for a track record: Since 1980 Harold Ramis has directed only eight films. But three of these films (`Caddyshack,' `National Lampoon's Summer Vacation' and `Groundhog Day') are considered classics, another (`Multiplicity') is one of the neglected comedies of all time and a fifth (`Analyze This') was a smash hit and showed that Robert DeNiro had a flair for comedy. Ramis has written all or part of 14 films; in addition to `Caddyshack', Groundhog Day' and `Analyze This,' he is credited for `Animal House,' `Meatballs,' `Stripes,' `Ghostbusters' and `Back to School.' Finally, he acted in several of these vehicles, and in addition was in `Baby Boom' and `As Good As It Gets.' And to top things off, he was part of the classic SCTV series.
So those of us who appreciate Ramis can sit back and watch a guilty pleasure like `Caddyshack,' knowing a genius is at work. `Caddyshack' has been tagged as the ultimate snobs vs. slobs movie. But it's really about cool. Chevy Chase is cool as Ty Webb, the greatest golfer never known. Rodney Dangerfield is cool as the boorish (I couldn't ever imagine using cool and boorish in the same sentence) Al Czervik. Bill Murray is cool as gonzo groundskeeper Carl Spackler. Michael O'Keefe is cool as Danny Noonan, the caddy who seems to be the only one who's aware of what's going on. And the gopher (fortunately, the fact that golfer and gopher sound a lot alike is only pursued once in the movie) that Carl sets out to kill is particularly cool as he boogies to Kenny Loggins' `I'm All Right.'
The film has a bit of nudity, some grossness and a great ending that was the perfect mix for those seeking mindless pleasure in 1980. It still delivers today.
Hollow Man (2000)
We've come to expect a number of things from Paul Verhoeven, who directed `Hollow Man': Non-stop action, bright colors, a bit of nudity, great special effects-and somehow, a deeper meaning behind the material on the screen.
It's the latter element that made his `RoboCop' and `Starship Troopers' more than just standard science fiction thrillers. Verhoeven seemed to be challenging us to think: `This looks great and we're having a lot of fun-but there's a message here.' Unfortunately, what the message was wasn't always clear. Critics are still arguing over what Verhoeven was trying to accomplish in `Starship Troopers.' Was it a polemic against fascism (Neil Patrick Harris looks like a Nazi at the end of the film), or like the book a militaristic work?
It looks like Verhoeven abandons any attempt at deeper meaning in `Hollow Man.' The story is a twist on the `Invisible Man' series. Kevin Bacon heads a team working on a secret government project. The twist isn't that the team is working on a formula to make people invisible-they've already figured that out (although the movie doesn't adequately explain how). Instead, the team must figure out how to make the invisible visible again.
Bacon discovers a solution, and volunteers to have it tried out on him. Unfortunately, he gets stuck in `invisible.' Like all good scientists who are turned invisible, he becomes progressively mad and violent. He spends the latter part of the movie trying to eliminate the rest of the team.
The special effects are extraordinary, particularly when the team tries to make an invisible gorilla visible, and when Bacon is made invisible. And Bacon, one of our most underrated actors, is terrific. He wrote a two-part article in "Entertainment Weekly" about how painful and exhausting it was for him to make the film.
But by the end of the movie `Hollow Man' turns out to be a predictable thriller. The audience pretty well knows who is going to survive the mad Bacon, that Bacon's character will be almost impossible to kill, and that somehow along the way the good guys will outrun a fireball. All of this is exciting. But somehow, we've come to expect more from this director.
Final Destination (2000)
"Final Destination" is a riff on the Christian concept of predestination-the idea that God infallibly guides those who are destined for salvation. In this film the idea is that all persons are infallibly predestined to die at a certain time in their life.
The movie starts out promisingly. A planeload of high school students and advisors are headed to Paris for a senior trip. While waiting for the plane to take off, one of the students has some premonitions that they are going to crash. He causes a commotion, and as a result six of the students and one advisor are kicked off the plane. Then they watch in horror as the plane explodes after takeoff.
Most people who don't die in a plane crash go through survivor's guilt. But because they have cheated death, the seven survivors here must instead dodge all sorts of deadly mishaps.
"Final Destination" doesn't know whether to take itself seriously or not. Unlike the characters in "Scream," who discuss horror film references while trying to dodge various slashers, the characters in "Final Destination" are not given a humorous moment. "Final Destination" writers Jeffrey Reddick and Glen Morgan do name most of their characters after horror movie staples: Browning (after Tod Browning of "Dracula" and "Freaks" fame), Val Lewton (after the director of "Cat People") Shreck (after Max Shreck, star of "Nosferatu") Hitchcock, Chaney, and so on. But my guess is the young people the film is targeting won't make the connection.
It's hard to tell if whatever humor the movie has is intentional or not. When death targets the characters, so many bad things happen at once that I was reminded of the character in "Li'l Abner" who walked around under a cloud. The main character keeps hearing the song "Rocky Mountain High" (because John Denver died in a plane crash) before someone is about to die, but at the end of the song is being played by a Paris street musician-not likely.
In 1959 Rod Taylor starred in a "Twilight Zone" episode, "And When the Sky Was Opened," as one of three astronauts who return from a trip to outer space, then discover they weren't supposed to survive. When "Final Destination" began I was hoping it would move in the same direction as that episode. Unfortunately, it doesn't.
Finding Buck McHenry (2000)
`Finding Buck McHenry' is a strange film. It has all of the trappings of a low-budget ABC `Afternoon Special.' Its performances are wildly uneven. Ossie Davis gives a memorable performance as Mac Henry, the school custodian whom young Jason Ross (played by Michael Schiffman) is convinced is the fictional former Negro League baseball legend Buck McHenry. But Schiffman and the most of the rest of the cast give poor performances. Ruby Dee, Davis' real life wife, plays his movie mate, and has little to do. All of this is a bit surprising since Charles Burnett, who helmed the critically acclaimed `To Sleep with Anger," directed the film
But the movie does an excellent job of conveying the racism faced by the Negro League players, and doesn't reveal until the end whether Henry is McHenry.
Three problems with the plot: McHenry supposedly had three great seasons in the Negro League before disappearing after a brush with the law, and yet was named to its hall of fame. Hall of famers in almost any sport must have a much longer track record than that. Secondly, if Henry is McHenry, he supposedly had been in hiding for 50 years after his brush with the law, even though the movie acknowledges that his `crime' would have long ago been forgotten. Finally, the film wants us to believe that a baseball fanatic like Jason would never have heard of the Negro League, which I find unlikely.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Adult Horror Film
Tim Burton's macabre and lyrical movie-making style are put to use in `Sleepy Hollow,' a fine horror film for adults.
Burton says that he grew up fascinated by the "beautiful horror" (as he calls it) of Britain's Hammer Films (Hammer star Christopher Lee has a cameo in this film), and he tried to replicate that style in `Sleepy Hollow,' which is loosely based on the Washington Irving classic.
Johnny Depp plays Icabod Crane, who in this incarnation of the legend is a New York City constable/crime scene investigator circa 1800 who is sent up state to look into several murders in the small town of Sleepy Hollow. The murderer not only decapitates his victims; he also takes their heads. Crane soon learns he is dealing with a supernatural foe, a headless horseman.
Depp says he modeled his performance on Roddy McDowall (particularly in `Fright Night') and Basil Rathbone. He does well, although he struggles with a British accent. But the film seems to have a problem with accents, anyway. It is set in a colony populated by Dutch immigrants, but almost everyone speaks with a British accent (the movie was filmed in England) except Miranda Richardson, who is English! The film also has a problem with fainting. There are almost as many faintings as decapitations.
I won't give away who the headless horseman is. Let's just say he is perfectly cast.
It is a measure of Sean Connery's charisma that he can steal a film without actually appearing in it. That's what happens in "Dragonheart," an entertaining effort from director Rob Cohen.
Connery provides the voice for Draco, the last dragon. And the CGI dragon created for this film is magnificent. ILM obviously modeled the dragon on Connery-his facial expressions and lip movements will be familiar to fans of the original and best James Bond.
"Dragonheart" stars Dennis Quaid as Bowen, last of the dragon slayers, who has been mentoring Prince Einon. Bowen seems to be the person in the theater who doesn't realize that when Einon becomes king he will turn out to be a bad egg.
Soon, last dragon and last dragon slayer meet and battle to a humorous stand off. They then team up to run a medieval scam: Draco appears in a town, Bowen shows up to collect a large bounty to "kill" the dragon, and they take their act to the next town.
But eventually Bowen and Draco team up to battle the king, with predictable results. Unfortunately, the fate of the dragon is telegraphed midway through the film.
Quaid is fine, as is Thewlis as Einon-although at times the latter looks so much like Martin Short we expect him to break into "I must say." And Connery, as always, is pure joy.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
Entertaining, If Not Ideal
Ideal documentaries pass three tests. The documentary maker must indicate a point of view toward the subject he is focusing on. He must be fair toward his subject. And he must not make fun of his subject.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye," though entertaining, is far from ideal. Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are fair in their treatment of the ex-wife of PTL network owner Jim Baker. They do a good job of documenting her life from birth in Minnesota to a comeback performance at Oral Roberts University. She is shown to be a talented singer, and remarkably supportive of AIDS sufferer Jim J Bullock. We hurt with her as she attempts to pitch shows to a television executive, and is promptly rejected.
But the film-makers use of puppets to introduce each story section (similar to the use of mice in "Babe"--perhaps the filmmakers felt justified because Jim and Tammy Faye started out as puppeteers) is a bit too cute, and an indication that try as they might the documentary makers can't keep from making fun of their subject.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the makers don't establish a point of view toward Tammy Faye. Is she a victim, survivor, manipulator or naïve? Perhaps she's a bit of all. But we'd like to know that her biographers think.